Nuclear Reactor Accidents More Likely Than Previously Thought
With Fukushima still fresh in our minds, much scrutiny has been given to the current state of nuclear power. Nuclear power is efficient, and does not fill the sky with black smoke, but the potential disasters that could arise from them are monumental. A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz determined that there is likely to be a nuclear reactor accident once every 10 to 20 years.
The number is around 200 times higher than previous estimates.
The study also came to the conclusion that in the event of a nuclear reactor accident, half of the radioactive caesium-137 (one of the key components of the radiation after Chernobyl and Fukushima) would spread over a 1,000 square kilometer area. The level of the caesium-137 would reach the level that the International Atomic Energy Agency defines as contaminated.
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Using a complex geographical and meteorological computer simulation, they ran a series of possible scenarios to determine which areas would be most affected based on population densities. These simulations revealed that only 8% of the causium-137 would deposit within 50 kilometers of the reactor, with 50% falling within a 1,000 kilometer radius and 25% dispersing further than 2,000 kilometers.
The area that had the highest worldwide risk was southwestern Germany. Despite Germany's exit from nuclear power plants, the surrounding countries all use it, and the southwestern border falls under many of their fallout zones.
"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 neighbors were to switch off their reactors," says Jos Lelieveld, head of the research team. "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."
By their calculations, Western Europe would reach contamination levels every 50 years, where 28 million people would be affected. If an accident were to occur in southern Asia, 34 million people would be in the contamination zones, and in the US and East Asia, anywhere between 14-21 million people.
The caesium-137 isotope is one of the byproducts of the nuclear fission of uranium. Nuclear fission is the process of splitting an atom's nuclei in order to release the vast amount of energy stored inside.