Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

The environmental footprints of coal and uranium mining.

with 9 comments

Here’s something worth thinking about.

This is a coal mine. Specifically, it’s the Blair Athol coal mine in central Queensland, Australia, but there’s no special reason why I chose this specific example of a coal mine. The mine produces 12 megatonnes of coal per year. (This is just a satellite image taken from Google Maps, which anybody can of course easily access.)

Coal has a thermal energy content of about 25 MJ/kg, and therefore 12 megatonnes of coal corresponds to a primary energy content of about 2.9 x 1017 J.

This is the Ranger uranium mine, near Jabiru in the Northern Territory of Australia. Again, nothing special about this specific uranium mine, it’s just an example.
All these satellite images are at a consistent scale factor, or zoom level/resolution.

In 2007-2008, Ranger produced 5273 tonnes of U3O8.

A conventional, relatively inefficient low-enriched uranium fuelled LWR with a thermal (primary energy) power output of about 3 GW requires approximately 200 tonnes of U3O8 to be mined to fuel it for one year, assuming that newly mined uranium is used for all its fuel.

Therefore, the annual uranium output from Ranger corresponds to about 2.5 x 1018 J of primary energy, or about 8.6 times the primary energy content supplied by the coal mine.

That is, that one uranium mine supplies the same amount of energy content as nine of the coal mines – one seemingly quite small uranium mine, which is about a third of the size of the coal mine, supplies the same amount of primary energy content as this. (I won’t embed that image in the post, since it will probably completely destroy the formatting of the page.)

Written by Luke Weston

January 9, 2009 at 7:24 am

9 Responses

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  1. These are the types of comparative and informative post that I really like! And this is the type of information that scientist, environmentalist, and politicians need to be looking at when they’re making the big decisions about our energy future. Excellent post!

    Marcel F. Williams

    January 9, 2009 at 6:45 pm

  2. Yes, and uranium mines also do not have the ash and mine tailings problem that nine coal mines would give you. Not to mention that there is no such thing as uranium mine fires.


    January 9, 2009 at 7:35 pm

  3. Very good post Luke. I’m definitely going to link to this post as part of an ongoing visual comparison series. More people need to see this type of information and realize the propaganda feed to them about uranium mining is false.

    Jason Ribeiro

    January 14, 2009 at 7:04 pm

  4. Nuclear waste, on the other hand, does tend to stick around. Plutonium has a half life of 240,000 some odd years. Coal ash actually gives off more radiation, due to trace amounts of Radium and Cesium.

    Don Meaker

    January 19, 2009 at 1:43 am

    • Plutonium (plutonium-239, specifically, which has a half-life of approximately 24,000 years) is not “waste” – it’s a valuable, potent, useful fuel.
      If “nuclear waste” is such a big deal, the most important and obvious solution is to stop calling such materials “waste” for no especially good reason, and to stop wasting it.

      Luke Weston

      January 20, 2009 at 12:25 am

  5. Good job Luke. Also consider that seawater uranium can provide several hundred years of electricity using Gen 3 reactors, and caps the price at less than $150 / lb. See two comments.


    January 19, 2009 at 3:50 am

  6. thank you for your post on the REAL cost comparisons of power generation: nuclear, solar, wind.
    Nuclear seems to be the most efficient but how do we stop the industry from creating depleted uranium from nuclear power generation biproducts? Depleted uranium is making them lots of money as they produce lethal DU weapon that are rained downon civilian worldwide.

    karen harvey

    March 28, 2009 at 2:26 pm

  7. awesome n very informative, jus da ans. i’ve been searchin 4, 4 dayz

    lil mizz puk rocker

    September 21, 2009 at 10:25 am

  8. What are some facts about science that liberals don’t like?

    It’s not just that mining coal is dirty, its that it’s incredibly destructive. It doesn’t just pollute ecosystems, it eliminates them entirely. Coal mining isnt just dirty, its catastrophic. Coal mines are also on average three times the size of an…


    September 17, 2015 at 5:06 pm

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