"All the world's a stage we pass through." - R. Ayana

Friday, 14 October 2016

More Nuclear Disasters Likely

More Nuclear Disasters Likely
Risk of another Chernobyl or Fukushima type accident plausible, experts say

New Clear Dawn by R. Ayana

The biggest-ever statistical analysis of historical accidents suggests that nuclear power is an underappreciated extreme risk and that major changes will be needed to prevent future disasters.

A team of risk experts who have carried out the biggest-ever analysis of nuclear accidents warn that the next disaster on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima may happen much sooner than the public realizes.

Researchers at the University of Sussex, in England, and ETH Zurich, in Switzerland, have analysed more than 200 nuclear accidents, and -- estimating and controlling for effects of industry responses to previous disasters -- provide a grim assessment of the risk of nuclear power.

Their worrying conclusion is that, while nuclear accidents have substantially decreased in frequency, this has been accomplished by the suppression of moderate-to-large events. They estimate that Fukushima- and Chernobyl-scale disasters are still more likely than not once or twice per century, and that accidents on the scale of the 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island in the USA (a damage cost of about 10 Billion USD) are more likely than not to occur every 10-20 years.

As Dr Spencer Wheatley, the lead author, explains: "We have found that the risk level for nuclear power is extremely high.

"Although we were able to detect the positive impact of the industry responses to accidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, these did not sufficiently remove the possibility of extreme disasters such as Fukushima. To remove such a possibility would likely require enormous changes to the current fleet of reactors, which is predominantly second-generation technology."

The studies, published in two papers in the journals Energy Research & Social Scienceand Risk Analysis, put fresh pressure on the nuclear industry to be more transparent with data on incidents.

"Flawed and woefully incomplete" public data from the nuclear industry is leading to an over-confident attitude to risk, the study warns. The research team points to the fact that their own independent analysis contains three times as much data as that provided publicly by the industry itself. This is probably because the International Atomic Energy Agency, which compiles the reports, has a dual role of regulating the sector and promoting it.

The research team for this new study gathered their data from reports, academic papers, press releases, public documents and newspaper articles. The result is a dataset that is unprecedented -- being twice the size of the next largest independent analysis. Further, the authors emphasize that the dataset is an important resource that needs to be continually developed and shared with the public.

Professor Benjamin Sovacool of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex, who co-authored the studies, says: "Our results are sobering. They suggest that the standard methodology used by the International Atomic Energy Agency to predict accidents and incidents -- particularly when focusing on consequences of extreme events -- is problematic.

"The next nuclear accident may be much sooner or more severe than the public realizes."

The team also call for a fundamental rethink of how accidents are rated, arguing that the current method (the discrete seven-point INES scale) is highly imprecise, poorly defined, and often inconsistent.

In their new analysis, the research team provides a cost in US dollars for each incident, taking into account factors such as destruction of property, the cost of emergency response, environmental remediation, evacuation, fines, and insurance claims. And for each death, they added a cost of $6 million, which is the figure used by the US government to calculate the value of a human life.

That new analysis showed that the Fukushima accident in 2011 and the Chernobyl accident in 1986 cost a combined $425 billion -- five times the sum of all the other events put together.

However, these two extremes are rated 7 -- the maximum severity level -- on the INES scale. Fukushima alone would need a score of between 10 and 11 to represent the true magnitude of consequences.

Further, the authors emphasize that such frequency-severity statistical analysis of holistic consequences should be used as a complementary tool to the industry standard Probabilistic Safety Assessment, especially when aggregate consequences are of interest.

Professor Sovacool adds: "The results suggest that catastrophic accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are not relics of the past.

"Even if we introduce new nuclear technology, as long as older facilities remain operational -- likely, given recent trends to extend permits and relicense existing reactors -- their risks, and the aggregate risk of operating the global nuclear fleet, remain."

Finally, the authors emphasize that this work is not comparative in nature, i.e. it does not quantify the risks of other energy sources. It provides a risk assessment for nuclear power alone, thus informing a single criterion, for a single power source, in the selection of a portfolio of multiple power sources, where many criteria must be considered.

Fellow co-author Professor Didier Sornette stresses: "While our studies seem damning of the nuclear industry, other considerations and potential for improvement may actually make nuclear energy attractive in the future."

The 15 most costly nuclear events analysed by the team are:

1.    Chernobyl, Ukraine (1986) -- $259 billion
2.    Fukushima, Japan (2011) -- $166 billion
3.    Tsuruga, Japan (1995) -- $15.5 billion
4.    TMI, Pennsylvania, USA (1979) -- $11 billion
5.    Beloyarsk, USSR (1977) -- $3.5 billion
6.    Sellafield, UK (1969) -- $2.5 billion
7.    Athens, Alabama, USA (1985) -- $2.1 billion
8.    Jaslovske Bohunice, Czechoslovakia (1977) -- $2 billion
9.    Sellafield, UK (1968) -- $1.9 billion
10. Sellafield, UK (1971) -- $1.3 billion
11. Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA (1986) -- $1.2 billion
12. Chapelcross, UK (1967) -- $1.1 billion
13. Chernobyl, Ukraine (1982) -- $1.1 billion
14. Pickering, Canada (1983) -- $1 billion
15. Sellafield, UK (1973) -- $1 billion

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Sussex. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Journal References:
  1. Spencer Wheatley, Benjamin K. Sovacool, Didier Sornette. Reassessing the safety of nuclear power. Energy Research & Social Science, 2016; 15: 96 DOI: 10.1016/j.erss.2015.12.026
  2. Spencer Wheatley, Benjamin Sovacool, Didier Sornette. Of Disasters and Dragon Kings: A Statistical Analysis of Nuclear Power Incidents and Accidents. Risk Analysis, 2016; DOI: 10.1111/risa.12587
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Severe nuclear reactor accidents likely every 10 to 20 years, European study suggests


Western Europe has the worldwide highest risk of radioactive contamination caused by major reactor accidents. Catastrophic nuclear accidents such as the core meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima are more likely to happen than previously assumed. Based on the operating hours of all civil nuclear reactors and the number of nuclear meltdowns that have occurred, scientists have calculated that such events may occur once every 10 to 20 years (based on the current number of reactors) -- some 200 times more often than estimated in the past.

Global risk of radioactive contamination. The map shows the annual probability in percent of radioactive contamination by more than 40 kilobecquerels per square meter. In Western Europe the risk is around two percent per year.
Credit: Daniel Kunkel, MPI for Chemistry, 2011

Western Europe has the worldwide highest risk of radioactive contamination caused by major reactor accidents.

Catastrophic nuclear accidents such as the core meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima are more likely to happen than previously assumed. Based on the operating hours of all civil nuclear reactors and the number of nuclear meltdowns that have occurred, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz have calculated that such events may occur once every 10 to 20 years (based on the current number of reactors) -- some 200 times more often than estimated in the past. The researchers also determined that, in the event of such a major accident, half of the radioactive caesium-137 would be spread over an area of more than 1,000 kilometres away from the nuclear reactor. Their results show that Western Europe is likely to be contaminated about once in 50 years by more than 40 kilobecquerel of caesium-137 per square meter. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, an area is defined as being contaminated with radiation from this amount onwards. In view of their findings, the researchers call for an in-depth analysis and reassessment of the risks associated with nuclear power plants.

The reactor accident in Fukushima has fuelled the discussion about nuclear energy and triggered Germany's exit from their nuclear power program. It appears that the global risk of such a catastrophe is higher than previously thought, a result of a study carried out by a research team led by Jos Lelieveld, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz: "After Fukushima, the prospect of such an incident occurring again came into question, and whether we can actually calculate the radioactive fallout using our atmospheric models." According to the results of the study, a nuclear meltdown in one of the reactors in operation worldwide is likely to occur once in 10 to 20 years. Currently, there are 440 nuclear reactors in operation, and 60 more are planned.

To determine the likelihood of a nuclear meltdown, the researchers applied a simple calculation. They divided the operating hours of all civilian nuclear reactors in the world, from the commissioning of the first up to the present, by the number of reactor meltdowns that have actually occurred. The total number of operating hours is 14,500 years, the number of reactor meltdowns comes to four -- one in Chernobyl and three in Fukushima. This translates into one major accident, being defined according to the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), every 3,625 years. Even if this result is conservatively rounded to one major accident every 5,000 reactor years, the risk is 200 times higher than the estimate for catastrophic, non-contained core meltdowns made by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1990. The Mainz researchers did not distinguish ages and types of reactors, or whether they are located in regions of enhanced risks, for example by earthquakes. After all, nobody had anticipated the reactor catastrophe in Japan.

25 percent of the radioactive particles are transported further than 2,000 kilometres

Subsequently, the researchers determined the geographic distribution of radioactive gases and particles around a possible accident site using a computer model that describes Earth's atmosphere. The model calculates meteorological conditions and flows, and also accounts for chemical reactions in the atmosphere. The model can compute the global distribution of trace gases, for example, and can also simulate the spreading of radioactive gases and particles. To approximate the radioactive contamination, the researchers calculated how the particles of radioactive caesium-137 (137Cs) disperse in the atmosphere, where they deposit on Earth's surface and in what quantities. The 137Cs isotope is a product of the nuclear fission of uranium. It has a half-life of 30 years and was one of the key elements in the radioactive contamination following the disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The computer simulations revealed that, on average, only eight percent of the 137Cs particles are expected to deposit within an area of 50 kilometres around the nuclear accident site. Around 50 percent of the particles would be deposited outside a radius of 1,000 kilometres, and around 25 percent would spread even further than 2,000 kilometres. These results underscore that reactor accidents are likely to cause radioactive contamination well beyond national borders.

The results of the dispersion calculations were combined with the likelihood of a nuclear meltdown and the actual density of reactors worldwide to calculate the current risk of radioactive contamination around the world. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an area with more than 40 kilobecquerels of radioactivity per square meter is defined as contaminated.

The team in Mainz found that in Western Europe, where the density of reactors is particularly high, the contamination by more than 40 kilobecquerels per square meter is expected to occur once in about every 50 years. It appears that citizens in the densely populated southwestern part of Germany run the worldwide highest risk of radioactive contamination, associated with the numerous nuclear power plants situated near the borders between France, Belgium and Germany, and the dominant westerly wind direction.

If a single nuclear meltdown were to occur in Western Europe, around 28 million people on average would be affected by contamination of more than 40 kilobecquerels per square meter. This figure is even higher in southern Asia, due to the dense populations. A major nuclear accident there would affect around 34 million people, while in the eastern USA and in East Asia this would be 14 to 21 million people.

"Germany's exit from the nuclear energy program will reduce the national risk of radioactive contamination. However, an even stronger reduction would result if Germany's neighbours were to switch off their reactors," says Jos Lelieveld. "Not only do we need an in-depth and public analysis of the actual risks of nuclear accidents. In light of our findings I believe an internationally coordinated phasing out of nuclear energy should also be considered ," adds the atmospheric chemist.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Journal Reference:
  1. J. Lelieveld, D. Kunkel, M. G. Lawrence. Global risk of radioactive fallout after major nuclear reactor accidents. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 2012; 12 (9): 4245 DOI: 10.5194/acp-12-4245-2012
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