Visualizing Nuclear Power

Visualizing Nuclear Power

Nuclear power stands to be among the most hotly contested issues of coming decades. And for good reason, as it poses the gnarliest of dilemmas: which is more perilous, the imminent threat of runaway climate change? Or the long-term risks radioactive waste? If we decide the former, can we gauge how swiftly "peaceful nuclear capacity" might become nuclear weapons buildup?

This week, the many facets of "nuclear power" are in full view. In the U.S., President Obama continues to wrestle with Republic Senators in an effort to pass the New START treaty, a major Russia-U.S. pact that would cap both nations' nuclear warheads at 1,550. Iran, meanwhile, announced on Sunday that it has started producing yellowcake, a uranium oxide concentrate that, when heated to remove impurities, yields uranium. With that key ingredient, Iran says it now has everything it needs for a self-sufficient nuclear program.

Tehran is adamant that this program is for peaceful energy purposes only. But other world leaders are skeptical. On Monday and Tuesday in Geneva, the so-called P5 plus 1 countries — Germany and permanent members of the UN Security Council: the US, China, Russia, France, and the UK— resumed stalled nuclear talks with Iran in an effort to halt or suspend its enrichment activities.

While Iran's showdown with the Security Council continues to command global headlines, a quieter nuclear revolution is taking place in Italy. The only G8 country without any of its own nuclear reactors, Italy is now aiming to reclaim its former status as a nuclear power frontrunner — a position it lost when Chernobyl sparked a popular anti-nuclear backlash that has lasted nearly three decades.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has launched an ambitious plan to generate 25% of the country's electricity with nuclear energy by 2030. This graphic, created by Density Design in Milan is a visual interpretation of the complex social, organizational, and environmental variables that will underpin Italy's nascent nuclear infrastructure.

As the designers put it: "According to provisions made by the government, the production of nuclear power should allow Italy to be completely autonomous concerning energy imports. The development of this new sector has required the definition of a new complex system which will involve various agencies, companies, and people related to different fields of knowledge."

They add that unrolling a new nuclear program across Italy, which currently imports 85% of its electricity, has many upsides, including helping the country meet its Kyoto obligations (see the top of the graphic for environmental impacts) and making the nation less reliant on foreign gas and oil imports. They add, however, that because the process will also "involve and affect the citizen," it demands "clarity of the system and the benefits of nuclear energy."

For its part, the Italian government has taken steps towards openness with a series of public opinion polls that show lingering hesitancy over the need for such a program. A poll conducted in July 2008 found that 54% of Italians supported nuclear power while 36% opposed it. But a 2010 report reveals a shifting tide, with 62% of people polled now saying that the share of nuclear energy in the country's mix should be either maintained or reduced. Only 20% said that Italy should boost its nuclear capacity.

Allying public sentiment, government mandates, and global environmental risk has never been an easy task (see here for a story on how France, Europe's current nuclear powerhouse, is grappling with that problem). But, as the Density Designers put it, visualizations can help build these discussions on a basis of "academic independence and rigor, open enquiry, and risk-taking to enhance our understanding of the world."

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