Nuclear Energy and Risk

Nuclear power contributes only a small share to the global energy production. According to the World Energy Statistics 2015 published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) nuclear power accounts for 4.8% of the total primary energy supply worldwide, far behind oil (31.1%), coal (28.9%), natural gas (21.4%) and even behind biofuels and waste (10.2%).
Of the producers of nuclear power, the United States are by far the largest with 33.2% of the world’s total, followed by France (17.1%) and Russia (7.0%). The United Kingdom’s production accounts for 2.9%. In contrast, France generates the largest share of its domestic electricity generation from nuclear power (74.4%). It is followed by Sweden (43.4%), Ukraine (43.0%) and South Korea (25.8%), while the United Kingdom comes fifth with 19.2%.

Cartogram of Nuclear Power Plants in the World
(click for larger version)

Nuclear power is not a renewable source of energy. It relies on uranium which is a relatively common resource. According to a 2014 OECD study, the largest currently known recoverable resources exist in Australia (approximately 29% of the world), Kazakhstan (12%) and Russia (9%). When looking at the actual production, more than half the world’s extraction takes place in Canada (28%) and Australia (23%), of which the latter has no nuclear power plants itself.
Criticism of the civil use of nuclear technology mostly focuses on the technology’s safety. The search for storage solutions for radioactive waste has made limited progress. Waste management and disposal options remain problematic and controversial. Furthermore, there is the risk of a nuclear accident, described by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as “an event that has led to significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility”. In 1990 the IAEA introduced the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) to describe the severity of such an event. The logarithmic scale reaches from 0 to 7 and at each level indicates a tenfold more severe incident than at the previous level. All incidents up to 3 are in the category of incidents, while those classified 4 and above are considered to be accidents.
A 2010 study concluded that there have been at least 99 recorded nuclear power plant accidents between 1952 and 2009. In the history of nuclear accidents, Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) have been the most severe and were classified as level 7 incidents (“major accident”). The worst incident in the UK was the 1957 Windscale fire at the Sellafield site which was classified a level 5 “accident with wider consequences”.
It is not the number of immediate fatalities that make nuclear accidents problematic, but the exposure of people to radiation and the contamination that has long-term consequences and also makes the issue of waste so challenging. A look at the proximity of population near nuclear power plants therefore helps to better understand the associated potential risks.
The cartogram shown above displays locations of nuclear power plants in the world taken from an IAEA database of nuclear reactors published by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University. This database includes facilities which are at varying stages of decommissioning which is a time-intensive and expensive process due to its continuing hazards.
In addition to the locations of the nuclear plants, circles of 20/30 and 80 kilometre distances are drawn around as the immediate risk zones. The underlying basemap uses a gridded cartogram based on equal population projection to put the differing exposures of populations into perspective. Each circle of equal distance is resized relative to the number of people living in the vicinity of each nuclear power plant. The locations of the most severe incidents above INES level 5 that happened in Europe are highlighted in the map, including the Chernobyl disaster which happened 30 years ago. An additional inset map shows the distribution of nuclear sites in the United Kingdom on a conventional map in comparison to a gridded population cartogram in more detail.
Nuclear hazards are not only defined by the distance of people from facilities. However, the surrounding population densities play an important part in assessing the long term consequences of a possible nuclear accident. Nuclear power plants are usually near larger populations as this is where energy is being used. As nuclear remains a technology that contains hazards from the production to waste storage and decommissioning of plants, strategies for managing possible accidents especially in some of the most densely populated locations are a key priority in handling the underlying risks.

When looking at this at a larger scale, some more interesting geographical patterns emerge in the distribution of nuclear facilities, as the following example from the United Kingdom shows (cited from a paper that I published with Danny Dorling):
It makes sense to generate electricity near to where it is consumed because power is lost in long distance transmission lines. Clearly, there are some good reasons for not producing some forms of electricity in some areas. Wind power is often greater on hills. Battersea power station may be worth far more turned into luxury flats and the old turbine hall of Bankside power station is now an art gallery, Tate Modern. However nuclear power stations need only be located near a source of water for cooling them and, so, could be located near London where a lot of the consumers live. But they are not.
The following map shows the 20, 30 and 80 km exclusion rings around nuclear power stations (and a few other similarly dangerous facilities such as Sellafield), first on the normal map and then on the population cartogram of the UK. Clearly avoiding areas of high population is not a priority when situating nuclear power stations. Very large numbers of people living in the North East of England, Yorkshire and Humberside, Greater Manchester, and Greater Cardiff and Bristol would be in the wrong place if the wind were going in the wrong direction at the wrong time. In contrast, hardly anyone who lives in London apart from those on the far South East fringes of the capital lives within 80 km of a nuclear power station (or similar nuclear facility). Furthermore, this exclusion of the capital is no coincidence. Similar patterns also occur in France, for Paris, and in Germany (currently phasing out nuclear energy), for both Bonn (the former capital) and Berlin (the current capital):

Cartogram of Nuclear Facilities in Britain
(click for larger version)

The UK map was first published in the following paper:

  • Dorling, D. and Hennig, B.D. (2016). London and the English desert – the geography of cultural capital in the UK. Cultural Trends.
    View online (Taylor & Francis)

A modified version of the maps were published in the May 2016 issue of Geographical Magazine. The content on this page has been created by Benjamin Hennig. Please contact me for further details on the terms of use.

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