Nuclear Power and its Role in Global Electricity and Energy

compiled by Anita Seth

Some of the units of measurement used in this article are defined at the bottom of the page.

Table 1 (below) lists countries in order of the percentage of electricity they derive from nuclear power. This table actually contains two separate measures of electricity: capacity and production. Capacity refers to the manufactured rating of the generation equiptment installed in a country, and is measured in megawatts (MW). Generation refers to the energy output over a given period of time (in this case, one year) and is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). Table 1 and Table 2 measure gross electricity, including transmission and distribution losses.

Table 1: Nuclear Power (1993)

Country Nuclear as Percentage of Gross Electricity Generation (rounded) Gross
Generation (million kWh)
Gross Capacity (MW)
S. Korea36%58,1387,616
United Kingdom28%89,35311,894
United States19%610,36599,061
World Totals*18%2,167,515340,911
* World totals include countries not individually listed.

Source: Energy Studies Yearbook: 1993 (New York: United Nations, 1995).

Table 2 compares nuclear power to other sources of electricity. While thermal-generated electricity is by far the most common, representing over 60 percent of world-wise electricity, on a regional basis, other energy sources can supply a majority of the electricity. In South America, hydro-electricity accounts for 80 percent of all electricity produced, over four times as much as thermal electricity, and over fifty times as much as nuclear power.

Table 2: Global Electricity Generation - by Type
(in million kWhe)
World 7,669,958 2,376,106 2,167,515 47,131 12,260,710
Africa 281,518 50,531 7,200 340 339,589
N.America 2,491,646 641,208 709,994 30,195 3,873,043
USA 2,236,388 276,463 610,365 22,676 3,145,892
S.America 97,291 410,479 8,192 - 515,962
Asia 2,403,166 526,107 351,498 9,356 3,290,127
China 685,153 151,800 2,500 - 839,453
India 279,000 70,667 6,800 52 356,519
Japan 550,181 105,470 249,256 1,798 906,705
Europe 2,237,226 708,654 1,090,631 5,640 4,042,151
France 35,366 67,894 368,188 - 471,448
Germany 350,656 21,465 153,476 124 525,721
Russia 662,199 175,174 119,186 28 956,587
Source: Energy Studies Yearbook: 1993 (New York: United Nations, 1995).

Table 3 looks at the broader context of not just electricity production, but all commercial energy consumption. The 700 million people of Africa, representing about 15 percent of world population, only consumed 3 percent of the world's commercial energy in 1993. By contrast, North America and Europe, where about one-fifth of the world's people live, accounted for almost half of all commercial energy consumption.

Among commercial energy sources, the reliance on fossil fuels is clear. Ninety percent of energy in the world comes from fossil fuels (mainly coal, petroleum, and natural gas). However, certain countries obtain a very significant percentage of their energy from nuclear power. In France, for example, nuclear power accounts for about 44% of total energy consumption.

Table 3: Global Commercial Energy Comsumption (1993)
(in petajoules)*
World 93,981 119,407 77,921 23,599 9,966 324,873
Africa 3,130 3,859 1,548 78 195 8,805
N.America 20,056 40,070 26,474 7,730 3,266 97,598
USA 18,863 32,093 22,362 6,645 1,684 81,751
S.America 616 5,456 2,461 89 1478 10,095
Asia 42,131 34,132 13,443 3,827 2,260 95,830
China 23,540 4,886 661 27 547 29,679
India 6,281 2,264 460 74 255 9,338
Japan 3,545 8,579 2,223 2,714 443 17,505
Europe 26,231 34,095 33,109 11,874 2,560 107,852
France 610 3,204 1,307 4,009 224 9,153
Germany 4,115 5,158 2,699 1,671 78 13,724
Russia 6,636 6,802 14,745 1,298 631 30,042
* Solids include hard coal, lignite, peat, and oil shale. Liquids includecrude petroleum and natural gas liquids. Other electricity is primarily hydro-electricity, but also included geothermal, wind, tide, wave, and solar sources. Nuclear electricity has been converted to thermal energy equivalent using a factor of 1,000 kWh (electrical) = 0.372 metric tons coal.

** Does not include imports and exports.

NOTE: Table 3 lists energy inputs (consumption of primary energy), while Table 2 lists energy outputs (in the form of electricity). This is the reason for the apparent disparity between the figures in the "Nuclear" and "Other Electricity" (primarily hydro-electricity) columns in this table,and those in the "Hydro" and "Nuclear" columns in Table 2. Electricity generation from heat energy (like nuclear) is only about one-third as efficient as electricity generation from mechanical energy (like hydro). While the amount of electricity produced from nuclear and hydro power sources are about equal, the nuclear inputs are three times greater than the hydro inputs. To make energy figures comparable, the "Other" column should be increased to about 27,000 petajoules.

Source: Energy Statistics Yearbook: 1993 (New York: United Nations, 1995).

Numbers in Tables 1-3 are based on the most recent United Nations data available. These tables take into account only commercial energy use, and thus leave out traditional sources of energy, such as wood, animal dung and crop residues (collectively known as biomass) which are used for cooking and heating. Biomass burning accounts for almost 15 percent of the world's energy consumption. In the developing world, reliance on biomass for energy is even greater: biomass burning is the largest source of energy, making up about 38 percent of total energy use. Because these fuels are non-monetized, their value and the extent of their use are often overlooked. Yet it is the only available energy source for hundreds of millions of people. One crucial energy source not included in these numbers is the energy intake by draft animals, which plays an especially significant role in Asia.

Biomass burning in its current form (Table 4) is inefficient compared to fossil fuels, and creates health and environmental problems. With some investment of money and research, biomass fuels could be converted into modern energy forms which would provide a cleaner, more efficient, and renewable base of energy, and hence preferable to fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Table 4: Energy from Biomass Burning (1985)
petajoules percentage of total energy
Industrialized Countries*6,9002.8%
Developing Countries*48,00038.1%
* The catagory "Industrialized Countries" includes U.S./Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and the former Soviet Union. The heading "Developing Countries" includes Latin America, Africa, Asia (minus Japan), and Oceania (minus Australia and New Zealand).

Source: Thomas B. Johansson, Henry Kelly, Amulya K. N. Reddy, and Robert H. Williams, Renewable Energy: Sources for Fuels and Electricity (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993), pp. 594-5.

Units of Measure
A metric unit used to measure the rate of energy generation or consumption. One horsepower is equal to 746 watts.

(MW) A common measure of generating capacity for large power plants.

A metric unit of energy, equal to one watt of power operating for one second.

(kWh) A unit of energy equal to 3.6 million joules. It is the amount of energy generated by a one-kilowatt source operating for one hour.

Energy use on a large scale is often measured in petajoules. One metric ton of coal equivalent (U.N. standard) is approximately 29 billion joules, therefore one petajoule is equivalent to about 34,500 metric tons of coal.

kilo -- One thousand
mega -- One million
giga -- One billion (or 109)
tera -- One trillion (or 1012)
peta -- One thousand trillion (or 1015)
exa -- One million million (or 1018)

For a larger list of terms, see our on-line glossary.

Return to Energy & Security No. 1 Table of Contents
Go to Energy & Security No. 1 Annotated Bibliography
Return to Energy & Security Main Menu
Return to IEER Homepage

Institute for Energy and Environmental Research

Comments to Outreach Coordinator:
Takoma Park, Maryland, USA

February, 1997