Would you live next to a radiant infrastructure?

By Carmen Ortolá Mas

The Internet of Things (IoT) constantly expanding among population, together with the massive generation of data from devices, platforms and applications, the possibility of being interconnected with each other, and the amount of energy implied has driven to the overgrown construction of data centres, cell towers and nuclear reactors. All these infrastructures surround us –sometimes too close from us– emitting radiation, CO2 and heating that can be an environmental hazard.

Rahul Mukherjee introduces the concept ‘radiant infrastructures’ in his homonymous book to refer to nuclear power plants and cellular phone antennas in India. They’re called ‘radiant’ because they emit radiation; nonetheless, ‘radiant’ also means ‘producing heat’ which is why in this post I will include data centres within radiant infrastructures.

There are 440 nuclear power reactors currently running in 32 countries, and 55 reactors under construction. Narrowing the figures, the UK has eight nuclear stations and is planning to build another eight. When it comes to cell towers, there’s no need to mention figures, but saying that there are 3,000 mobile base stations providing 5G across the UK may give you an idea. And if that were not enough, there are over 7 million data centres worldwide, the UK being the second country with the most data centres –452, behind the US with 2670.

We are probably more familiarised with hazards derived from nuclear reactors and cell towers. Nuclear reactors emit high-energy ionizing radiation that is carcinogenic and known to cause genetic mutation. On the other hand, cell tower signals fall within low-energy nonionizing radiation, although carcinogenic effects have not yet been ruled out. Even so, nuclear reactors are still globally relied as energy source and not planned to cut down, as well as cell towers will continue sending and receiving electromagnetic radiation.

What is more, there are communities living near these facilities with the belief that the economic factor surpasses the health factor and having a nuclear plant in their area is a matter of pride. Moreover, nuclear power plants have safety and security procedures in place and are closely tracked by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); nevertheless, this doesn’t prevent a possible accident in which radioactive materials will get inside the bodies of people, and settle and contaminate buildings, food, water and livestock.

What about data centres? The problem here has to do with energy consumption and CO2 and heat emissions. In 2016, statistics showed that the world’s data centres used 416.2 terawatt hours. In addition, they account for 2% of total greenhouse gas emissions and have the same carbon footprint as airline industry. Moreover, due to the extremely amount of electricity they need to work; they also need a cooling system that could be inefficient, as the heat removed by the cooling system is rarely used for anything.

Nonetheless, there are ways to reduce data centre’s footprint and use them in a sustainable way. Setting up data centres in cool climates makes cooling system more efficient, and the removed heat can be used to warm up residential and office buildings, establishing those centres underneath them. In this case, living next to a communication infrastructure doesn’t seem that bad, although it would only benefit those living in cold places.

Being realistic, what seemed a question of choice –would you live next to a radiant infrastructure – is more a question of necessity. Population is growing and with this, the demand for computing power. So, cities are expanding, as well as the construction of nuclear plants, cell towers, and data centres, therefore we must find sustainable ways to support our well-being and preserve the environment.

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