Identifying Nuclear Reactors in Google Earth

Guest Blog | December 31, 2012 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

This blog is one of a series on ways to identify power sources in Google Earth. To use all the features discussed in these blogs, download Google Earth, here.

Nuclear power plants tend to be one of the more iconic and easily recognizable forms of electric power generation. The most easily identifiable portion of a nuclear power plant is usually its cooling towers – not the reactor itself. As such, it can be fairly easy to confuse a nuclear reactor with a coal-fired power plant that also uses hyperboloid water cooling towers. (Note: not all nuclear plants have cooling towers and not all nuclear plants have hyperboloid towers.) Nuclear power plants and coal-fired power plants tend to exist closely to waterways – mainly for water extraction purposes, but also frequently for transportation of fuel and resources for facilities. Nuclear and other electric power plants also have extensive transmission infrastructure built up nearby and they also have fairly easily recognizable generator buildings.

But, there are usually at least three attributes visually separating a coal-fired power plant that uses hyperboloid cooling towers and a standard nuclear power plant: a coal pile, smoke stacks and the reactor dome. (Note: some reactor designs, such as Plant Hatch in Georgia and the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors in Japan, are boiling water reactors, and look different than pressurized water reactors.) Since nuclear power plants do not burn coal for electric generation, if you see a large pile of coal nearby, chances are, you’re not looking at a nuclear power plant. Additionally, coal-fired power plants need smoke stacks to direct the soot and other air pollutants, whereas nuclear power plants tend to not have the extremely tall cylindrical smoke stacks nearby. One way to positively identify a nuclear power plant is by its reactor. The reactor structure tends to look like a short, squatty, circular dome located near the cooling towers.

 Compare the (above) image of the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant along the Savannah River to the (below) image of a coal-fired power plant using hyperboloid cooling towers.

As with coal energy, there are plenty of Google Earth “tours” you can take regarding nuclear energy. At the Nature blog, you can check out the world’s nuclear reactors, types and relative size. Physicians for Social Responsibility developed a mapping tool for concerned citizens to find out how close they live nuclear power plants here in the U.S., specifically in case of accidents. Google Earth also contains a “historical imagery” feature under the “View” menu. Turning that feature on, and going back in time, shows the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan and its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex.

And if you’re worried that SACE has uncovered some breach of national security, fear not. Several nuclear reactors around the world, and other energy infrastructure sites such as liquid natural gas import terminals, are intentionally blurred out on Google Earth to obstruct vision. On second thought, the fact that some reactors are blurred, and some are not, may perhaps be the most worrisome.

Stay tuned and check out our other blogs in this series on identifying coal plants, wind farms other power stations in Google Earth.

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