Sat, Mar 19, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The dirt on nuclear power

From 1952 to 2009, there have been at least 99 nuclear accidents that either killed someone or caused major damage, and, since Chernobyl, nuclear ‘events’ have killed more people than commercial US airline accidents

By Benjamin K. Sovacool

Illustration: Tania Chou

Japan’s nuclear crisis is a nightmare, but it is not an anomaly. In fact, it is only the latest in a long line of nuclear accidents involving meltdowns, explosions, fires and loss of coolant — accidents that have occurred during both normal operation and emergency conditions, such as droughts and earthquakes.

Nuclear safety demands clarity about terms. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the US generally separates unplanned nuclear “events” into two classes, “incidents” and “accidents.” Incidents are unforeseen events and technical failures that occur during normal plant operation and result in no off-site releases of radiation or severe damage to equipment. Accidents refer to either off-site releases of radiation or severe damage to plant equipment.

The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale uses a seven-level ranking scheme to rate the significance of nuclear and radiological events: levels 1 to 3 are “incidents,” and 4 to 7 are “accidents,” with a “level 7 Major Accident” consisting of “a major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures.”

Under these classifications, the number of nuclear accidents, even including the meltdowns at Fukushima Dai-ichi and Fukushima Dai-ni, is low. However, if one redefines an accident to include incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or more than US$50,000 in property damage, a very different picture emerges.

At least 99 nuclear accidents meeting this definition, totaling more than US$20.5 billion in damages, occurred worldwide from 1952 to 2009 — or more than one incident and US$330 million in damage every year, on average, for the past three decades. And, of course, this average does not include the Fukushima catastrophe.

Indeed, when compared with other energy sources, nuclear power ranks higher than oil, coal and natural gas systems in terms of fatalities, second only to hydroelectric dams. There have been 57 accidents since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. While only a few involved fatalities, those that did collectively killed more people than have died in commercial US airline accidents since 1982.

Another index of nuclear-power accidents — this one including costs beyond death and property damage, such as injured or irradiated workers and malfunctions that did not result in shutdowns or leaks — documented 956 incidents from 1942 to 2007. And yet another documented more than 30,000 mishaps at US nuclear power plants alone, many with the potential to have caused serious meltdowns, between the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and 2009.

Mistakes are not limited to reactor sites. Accidents at the Savannah River reprocessing plant released ten times as much radioiodine as the accident at Three Mile Island, and a fire at the Gulf United facility in New York in 1972 scattered an undisclosed amount of plutonium, forcing the plant to shut down permanently.

At the Mayak Industrial Reprocessing Complex in Russia’s southern Urals, a storage tank holding nitrate acetate salts exploded in 1957, releasing a massive amount of radioactive material over 20,000km2, forcing the evacuation of 272,000 people. In September 1994, an explosion at Indonesia’s Serpong research reactor was triggered by the ignition of methane gas that had seeped from a storage room and exploded when a worker lit a cigarette.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top