The next catastrophic nuclear reactor core meltdown is much more likely than you suspect

Friday, June 01, 2012 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: nuclear reactors, meltdown, catastrophe

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(NaturalNews) Remember the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in Russia in 1986 and, more recently, the tsunami-caused nuclear plant crisis at the Fukushima complex in Japan last year? Well, new research shows that the probability for more such disasters is much higher than previously believed.

Currently there are 440 nuclear reactors in operation around the world, and another 60 are planned (of those figures, there are 104 operating reactors in the U.S. with five under construction and 10 applications for new plants under review with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute). Scientists at the Max-Planck Institute in Germany say that core meltdowns at nuclear plants may occur every 10-20 years, or about 200 times more than earlier estimates found.

Scientists at the institute, which bills itself as Germany's "most successful" research facility, have also determined that in the event of a major accident at a nuclear plant, half of the radioactive isotope cesium-137 could be spread over an area of up to 1,000 km (about 621 miles) from the reactor itself.

In addition, researchers at the institute said Western Europe could become contaminated once every 50 years by more than 40 kilobecquerel of cesium-137 per square meter (danger levels ... ) per square meter, an amount that is considered permanently radiation contaminated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Factoring the next disaster

As you might imagine, the results of the study has researchers appealing for an in-depth analysis and reassessment of nuclear power and the risks associated with it, with the reactor damage to the Fukushima complex last year as a backdrop, a disaster that led Germany to decide to stop using nuclear power altogether.

"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," said Jos Lelieveld, director of the Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and lead author of the study.

To determine how likely nuclear meltdowns could occur, the research team applied one simple calculation - dividing the total number of operating hours of all civilian nuclear reactors around the world, from the time they were first activated to the present, by the number of nuclear reactor meltdowns that have actually occurred.

They found that out of the total number of operating ours - 14,500 years - there have been four meltdowns: one at Chernobyl and three at Fukushima. As defined by the International Nuclear Event Scale at the IAEA, this translates into one major accident every 3,625 reactor years. Even rounding that up conservatively to 5,000 reactor years, that means the risk of a major meltdown accident is 200 times greater than the estimate for catastrophic, non-contained core meltdowns made by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 1990, the National Security News Wire reported.

It's clean energy, but...

Mainz and his research team did not factor in other variables, such as reactor age and the potential for natural disasters - like an earthquake or, in Japan's case, a tsunami - causing reactor damage and meltdown. If those variables had been factored in, some might conclude the risk of another accident is even greater.

The research team found that Western Europe was particularly vulnerable, due to a higher concentration of nuclear power plants. If an accident were to happen in that region, the study found that as many as 28 million people could be affected; the ratio of population-to-reactors is even higher in southern Asia, so the casualty rate there per million would be worse, the study found.

The nuclear power industry presents a conundrum for environmentalists. On the one hand nuclear power generates zero emissions, but on the other it creates the potential for the kinds of accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima and, to a far lesser extent, the Three Mile Island incident in the U.S. in 1979, and the resultant damage they caused, or can cause. Then, there is the problem of disposing of the contaminated fuel rods.

Nuclear energy accounts for about 20 percent of the nation's power production.

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