Nuclear power

  • Written by  Benjamin Hennig
  • Published in Mapping
Nuclear power Benjamin Hennig
14 May
2016
Few issues polarise like nuclear power. Benjamin Hennig maps the world's nuclear power plants, and explores nuclear energy's future

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

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 per cent of the world), Kazakhstan (12 per cent) and Russia (nine per cent). When looking at the actual production, more than half the world’s extraction takes place in Canada (28 per cent) and Australia (23 per cent).

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 each level indicates a tenfold more severe incident than at the previous level. Everything up to level 3 falls into the category of ‘incidents’, while those classified level 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. Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) have been the most severe and were classified as level 7 (‘major accidents’). The worst event in the UK was the 1957 Windscale fire at the Sellafield site which was classified as a level 5 ‘accident with wider consequences’.

hennigLocations of nuclear power plants in the UK and around the world (Image: Benjamin Hennig)

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. A look at the proximity of populations near nuclear power plants therefore helps to better understand the associated potential risks. The cartogram above displays locations of nuclear power plants from an IAEA database of nuclear reactors published by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University. This includes facilities which are at varying stages of decommissioning – 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 80km distances are drawn 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 are highlighted. The inset map shows the distribution of nuclear sites in the UK on both a conventional map and gridded population cartogram for more detail.

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.

Benjamin Hennig (@geoviews) is a senior research fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He is involved in the Worldmapper project and maintains the blog www.viewsoftheworld.net.

This was published in the May 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Forests

The latest laser scanning technology reveals new insights into the…

Forests

Deforestation is having an unexpected effect in the Amazon: fewer…

Forests

The iconic Douglas fir tree, familiar to fans of the…

Forests

Rocky Mountain forests are not regenerating after wildfires

Cities

Cape Town is edging closer to ‘Day Zero’, the long-feared…

Water

Ongoing restoration projects are breathing new life into Florida’s Everglades

Cities

Despite protests, an experimental pedestrianisation system is proving to be…

Mapping

National Archives map historian, Rose Mitchell, highlights some of the…

Water

An expedition into the Jordanian desert is helping teachers and…

Mountains

Trivia fans take note, Mount Hope in the British Antarctic…

Water

An enormous hydropower development in Ethiopia is expected to put…

Mapping

From nuclear warnings to whether your favourite band will ‘make…

Mapping

New maps of global reptile distribution reveal significant gaps in…

Forests

Indigenous conservation schemes in Peru can be more effective than…

Mapping

How are the EU member nations faring in the fight…

Mapping

Violence against women violates human rights, and the lack of…

Cities

Deadly heat waves could become more frequent in cities thanks…

Mapping

These 13 poignant infographics are in the running for the…

Mapping

Sometimes referred to as the fourth dimension, time has a…

Forests

A global, citizen-led carbon sequestration scheme is aiming to combat…