“It was just there”: living with nuclear power risk

On 22 August 2010 The Observer newspaper reported that in July the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston in Berkshire, which houses the UK’s “Trident” nuclear weapons programme, had experienced “a serious fire in the base’s explosives area… which resulted in local residents having to be evacuated and left one member of staff injured”. This was followed several days later by a Guardian report on the UK’s new nuclear reactor programme falling behind schedule: delays in developing and approving designs for the first new UK reactor for over two decades pushed the scheduled date of first operation back to 2018. The new reactor programme is a significant part of the UK’s strategy for limiting carbon emissions.

A 2010 study shed light on how incidents like the one reported may affect the views of people living nearby. “From the familiar to the extraordinary: local residents’ perceptions of risk when living with nuclear power in the UK” used a narrative interview approach to examine perceptions of risk by residents near two UK nuclear power stations. The study identified two major themes: one, of generally seeing the power station and its risk as normal and ordinary; the other, of sometimes “noticing the extraordinary”, and dealing with the suddenly-foregrounded risk in different ways. As one resident put it, “[I]t’s like living with a bit of a birthmark. You know it’s there, you get used to it, you don’t take any notice of it and then something will focus your mind if there’s an issue and you think about it a little bit more.” Risk might be foregrounded either through media coverage or personal experience (such as a relative with cancer), leading to episodes of anxiety. The study noted the impact, for example, of prominent terrorist attacks like the September 11 bombings, which led to heightened fears of attacks on nuclear power stations. The researchers conclude that “while we have shown ordinariness to be the predominant framing adopted by those living close to such sites, the tolerability to nuclear risk that it supports is also a fragile, unstable state,” and warn against taking residents’ trust for granted.

View the Parkhill et al (2010) article here Parkhill, Karen; Pidgeon, Nick; Henwood, Karen; Simmons, Peter; and Venables, Dan (2010), “From the familiar to the extraordinary: local residents’ perceptions of risk when living with nuclear power in the UK“, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Volume 35 Issue 1, pp39-58

Nuclear arsenals under scrutiny for safety lapses, fires and flood Jamie Doward, The Observer, 22 August 2010, “Nuclear arsenals under scrutiny for safety lapses, fires and flood

UK's nuclear reactor programme falls behind schedule Tim Webb, The Guardian, 25 August 2010, “UK’s nuclear reactor programme falls behind schedule

Robin de la Motte


  1. It’s so rare to discuss perspectives of residents I used to live nearby to Aldermaston and we would often see big tankers with high security escorts going to and from the camp. It was quite a chilling thought to think what could potentially happen, there are sirens in case of an emergency and hence drills etc. Such a beautiful village, the camp felt like a skeleton in the cupboard. Residents feelings rarely make it into debate on issues such as nuclear power more empirical research in this area is long overdue.

  2. Reading this made me tank of a wonderful short film I saw last year calledThe Door. It was nominated for an Oscar.

    We often forget the real struggles we inevitably endure as mankind and technology evolve. The space shuttle challenger also comes to mind.

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