Sunday, 1 April 2012

Nuclear Accidents in Context

By guest blogger, Joel Turner

Fukushima and Chernobyl have given nuclear power a bad rep. Fear of radiation, whilst completely understandable, has been blown out of proportion when compared to the risks associated with other industries and even renewable energy sources. This article aims to give some context.


The author would like people to know that this is in no way peer reviewed, information is from the media and wider public domain and, as such, should not be judged as scientific fact. This article is a reflection of personal opinions, not necessarily the author's, and does not reflect the views or opinions of any the author's commercial or academic associates.

Nuclear power has a bad rep, and sometimes not undeservedly. The recent disaster in Fukushima, the historical disaster at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Windscale… each demonstrated that nuclear power can be dangerous. What I wanted to do with this post was to try and put those into context, and hopefully explain why, although disasters are (obviously) terrible, disasters involving nuclear power are not the literal end of the world, nor are they automatically more dangerous than incidents involving other large scale power generation or industrial processes.

So, lets start with the big one. Chernobyl. Nobody is ever going to stand up and say Chernobyl wasn’t awful, an absolutely terrible loss of life, the evacuation of a whole area and man-made radioactive contamination on a scale the world had never seen. One problem with Chernobyl is the vast range of casualty estimates from the resulting release of radioactive material. The initial accident caused 64 deaths as of 2008. Cancer incidence is much harder to measure – the USSR's medical record keeping was sparse at best, meaning natural cancer incidence before the disaster is hard to gauge. The WHO estimates some 4,000 civilian deaths may come about as a result. Greenpeace estimates 200,000. The Union of Concerned Scientists, an American body made up of scientists and engineers aiming to steer public policy estimates 50,000 extra cancer cases and 25,000 deaths. These are not small numbers, even the smallest WHO estimate still represents some 4,000 families who may suffer a loss as a result of the disaster and this must not be treated lightly, but it must be put into a context and treated in a scientific fashion if we are to learn from this, and the effects of other nuclear incidents.

The context I will use is this – the number of deaths that the use of other power options would directly cause without an accident, and the number of deaths caused by an industrial disaster of similar magnitude (Bhopal). The main contenders for power generation are coal or gas (the only real like for like comparison since other methods are fairly incapable of producing base-load electricity), wind and other renewables.

Let me start by saying that nuclear power is cheap. Anybody that tells you otherwise is misinformed or mistaken. Nuclear is sold to the grid at one of the lowest price-points, because in general it is an always-on solution. The only real competitor at this level are fossil fuel plants. The sad fact that accompanies this is that fossil fuels kill. Particulates released into the atmosphere are responsible for some 4000 deaths each year world wide. Carbon dioxide releases from fossil fuels break down inversely to price (2249lbs/MWh coal, 1672lb/Mwh oil and 1135lb/MWh gas). Given that the UK national grid is based on buying electricity at its cheapest, coal will always be a preferred option (barring short-term government intervention). So essentially, the number of deaths world wide from coal fired power plants is roughly similar to the number of deaths caused immediately by the Chernobyl disaster.

Once again this isn’t to belittle the loss of life suffered from either, merely to provide a level of context.

Renewable energy is cited as the future, and I think that is certainly (hopefully!) a reasonable assessment. The idea that electricity can eventually be generated in meaningful amounts when required, simply by harnessing forces already naturally present within the Earth is laudable and something that should be pursued. There are of course some issues with it however, and many are quick to overlook these in the face of what is obviously an attractive solution. I’ve focused on on-shore wind here, as it seems to be the most mature method of generation to date.

It is sensible to look at accident rates per terawatt hour (TWh) of power produced in order to provide a meaningful value. For nuclear this number is 0.04 deaths/TWh. For wind it is 0.4 deaths/TWh. Wind power has a higher mortality rate than nuclear (including Chernobyl) for the amount of power it produces. Now, these are largely small scale accidents, incidents with turbines etc, and it goes without saying that a man flying into a turbine is not on the same scale as Chernobyl, but because of the very low amount of power wind turbines actually produce (if we were to build a wind farm to power the UK based on current technology we’d need an area the size of Wales to do so) this is the only real way to compare the two. Then there’s the human and environmental cost of wind turbines. The cost of mining the rare earth metals required to produce these turbines is staggering.

The lake of toxic waste at Baotou, China, which as been dumped by the rare earth processing plants in the background

Hydroelectric power on the other hand is pretty much brilliant. If you have access to it of course. At deaths per TWh (not including the Banquao disaster in China where the hydro damn failed, killing some 171,000 people) hydro sits at 0.1 deaths/TWh. Including Banquao the rate is 1.4 (taken from a 2008 study). Having said that, hydro has some serious advantages – power is generated by the natural movement of water, so there’s no real waste produced here, although there’s an obvious environmental impact from damming large rivers, and the real problem is the geography of the site determines if hydro will work – this isn’t something that can be done in every country, and will therefore have a finite capacity to expand as the worlds energy needs increase.

Finally we come to Bhopal. The city in India generally accepted to have suffered the worlds worst industrial disaster, and it wasn't energy related. A gaseous release of some 23 tons of toxic gas released into the atmosphere, immediately killing an estimated 26,000 people and injuring or disabling hundreds of thousands of others.

None of these deaths should be taken lightly. These statistics shouldn’t be treated as ‘just statistics’ and yet they must be in order to make reasonable decisions. We need power – we need industry in all it forms – to maintain the lifestyle we are accustomed to. When it gets dark we now turn on a light, when it gets cold we turn up the heat, and these things come at a cost whichever way we go about generating the power behind them. Within the context of normal operation, nuclear power is the safest energy generation mechanism by far. In terms of accidents, the worlds worst nuclear accident is marginally worse than the worlds worst industrial accident (depending on which study you read). In terms of the power generated per death caused, even including Chernobyl, nuclear is still the safest.

Which brings us to Fukushima. The data presented above includes the Fukushima incident. It cannot be taken lightly that several hundred square kilometres of land were evacuated. People left their homes and may not be able to return for a long period of time, but many more people would be dead or seriously ill if nuclear power within Japan had been replaced by fossil fuels at an earlier stage. Now it seems the fear of using nuclear energy is under the spotlight for safety, people are once again afraid of radiation and it's possible that this may sway public opinion towards fossil fuels.

Let me finish by saying this – the radiation released by a coal fired plant is significantly greater than that of a nuclear plant, less well controlled and expelled into the atmosphere within the released particulates. The radioactive fission products produced by nuclear power stay where they are generated, barring a huge natural disaster (which in the case of Fukushima has somehow been overshadowed by the effect on the nuclear plant). In the case of Fukushima, the news broke today that the release within the reactor building was much higher than they expected, and that was front-page news on the BBC. That sounds like terrible news. Awful shocking and very scary but again it requires a context – this is a building largely surrounded by nuclear experts and monitored 24/7. It wasn’t until they put a probe within the building that they were able to detect the release (and hence damage to the reactor) was larger than they initially thought and these are world experts, actively looking for heath risks. The building itself had done such a remarkable job of containing pretty much everything it was supposed to that the unexpectedly large release wasn't detectable from outside.

Edit - Added 'hundred' to the penultimate paragraph to better reflect the size of the Fukushima evacuation zone.


  1. There are some good points here, but let's get our facts right.

    "It cannot be taken lightly that several square kilometres of land were evacuated."

    Here's the evacuation zone. It's rather a lot more than several square kilometres.

    I don't know if there are similar mistakes in the rest of the piece.

  2. You're right that 'several square kilometers' doesn't necessarily get across size of land evacuated (my very quick back-of-the-envelope calculation puts it at around 1200km^2).
    I was more trying to convey the point that it is land that has been lost here (rather than people) and the lack of an exact size for the evacuation zone within the piece is a consequence of that.

  3. Are you ok leaving that or would you like me to edit it?.
    Also Joel, i could give you access to posts and let you correct it and any other inaccuracies that may crop up.

  4. Two things,
    - From Gunth, it's more like 600Km^2, you need to divide that number by 2 because they didn't evacuate the sea.
    - Here's something interesting by the PSI on more recent (from 1970-2005) energy related fatalities from severe incidents.

  5. I think Joel's back-of-the-envelope number is closer - it's not just a 20km circle around the plant, it's also the area that got contaminated during the short period when the wind stopped blowing helpfully out towards the Pacific and headed back to the north-west. That's the green area on the map I linked - it stretches nearly 50km away from the power station.

  6. Apologies, but I think irrespective of this Joel's point raised in that paragraph is an extremely significant one. By replacing nuclear power with fossil fuels in Japan, many more people may be put at risk over a much longer timescale.

    Related to this, a significant industrial accident, which happened in the Miyagi prefecture after the earthquake was the explosion and fire at a petrochemical facility. Given the tangible nature of the gaseous products which were released, there seemed to be an implicit and very dangerous assumption that this was deemed to be relatively safe in the surrounding area due to the authority's ability to visualise the plumes.

    To some extent, going back to the evacuation scale, we can link this back to a point we made in the podcast. That is one of communication between authorities and the international agencies who advise on such matters. There did appear to be discrepancies between the advice given by the IAEA and the actions taken by the Japanese authorities (whom, I would argue to some degree, followed a more logical approach to evacuation than the advice given by the IAEA).

  7. Sorry, I didn't realise I'd missed out the end of that comment haha. I think it's this communication problem that leads people to be confused and fear nuclear more as an intangible threat, which, in turn, feeds our inability to rationalise and contextualise these events in relation to other industries.

  8. What I think you can say is that the damage caused by the nuclear accident in this case was overwhelming to property rather than life - lost homes, lost land, brand damage to the farming and tourism industries, etc. The greatest loss of life seems to have been of elderly people evacuated in a hurry, but by and large the evacuation worked. If this can be replicated in future nuclear accidents, it gives nuclear a big safety advantage over other kinds of power generation that fail more suddenly without time to get people out of the way.

    From a risk management perspective, it makes me wonder whether a bit more of the resources going into making nuclear plants safer shouldn't be going into evacuation planning. (Can you get a bus out of there? Can you get gas for it? Is someone checking you're not leaving people behind in hospitals?) The next nuclear accident may happen in a country with more panic-prone people, and a less compliant media.

    1. You raise a very good point there about risk management. It's an issue, which was tackled to some extent by Jim Al-Khalili on Horizon last year. The show was titled "Fukushima: Is Nuclear Power Safe?" He raises several key points with regards to evacuation planning, one of which questions the socio-economic and cultural impact of such an upheaval on a community. I remember at the time feeling that the programme stimulated a lot of debate on the issues surrounding evacuation procedures and would recommend it if you haven't seen it! Here's a link but think it's probably doing the rounds on YouTube.

  9. BTW I didn't hear about the discrepancy between IAEA evacuation advice and Japanese advice; There was one between American and Japanese advice: The US advised their citizens to stay out of a 50km radius, while the Japanese said 30km. I think they were both right.

    Despite what a lot of experts were saying at the time, there was serious contamination beyond 30km. And that was with reasonably good luck in the wind direction, the spent fuel pool being in a better state than people thought and the ultimate success of the various Heath-Robinson heroics that got the situation under control. So recommending that the few dozen Americans in that area to stay away made sense.

    But evacuating anything to the east of Koriyama would have been quite a logistical challenge. People would have died in the process, and it wouldn't have helped efforts to get relief to the tsunami victims to the north. (I think the main transport corridor would have been a few km west of that - it may even have passed insize 50km.) So the Japanese authorities were right not to say what the Americans said, even if the Americans were right to say it.

    1. Actually, the Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission - a politician with NO prior education or experience in nuclear energy production related fields - declared that Americans should remain at least 50 MILES (80 km) from the Fukushima power station.

      He made that declaration based on a completely false assumption that the used fuel pool for unit 4 had been completely drained of water and was on fire, releasing its material to the atmosphere.

      That assertion/assumption was made despite the fact that there were NO measurements of radioactive material in the atmosphere that would have confirmed the assumption (sensors were available and used, but apparently their lack of measurements were either unreported or ignored).

      At the time that Jaczko provided his testimony to Congress recommending the evacuation, there was a reporter from the New York Times in the hearing room. He emailed me from his smartphone for my analysis of the situation; I told him that Jaczko was wrong and provided the evidence of my assertion. Oh well...

    2. Thanks Rod, that would definitely have been a disaster if the Japanese had said it - it would include the cities of Koriyama and Fukushima, and all the main roads and railway lines between Tokyo and the disaster areas to the north.

  10. John Tjostem
    As an emeritus professor of biology with a teaching specialty in immunology, I know that the myths associated with nuclear power’s dangers need to be exposed as mostly frauds. Our species evolved in a world that had much higher levels of radiation. Radiation, like vitamins, is good for us in small amounts but toxic in large quantities. Animal studies provide evidence that ionizing radiation is not only good for us its presences in our bodies is a necessary requisite for health. The scientific literature is filled with some 3000 studies that show a moderate increase in radiation improves our health and decreases our risk of cancer.
    In response to hysterical fear of radiation, unrealistically low radiation limits are enforced world-wide by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). The conservative ICRP adheres to the flawed linear non-threshold hypothesis (LNT) and promotes the standard, “as low as reasonably achievable” (ALARA). Their recommended safety level for a person is radiation exposure of only 1 mSv per year. Radio-phobia displaced more than 300,000 people from their homes near Chernobyl in an area where the background radiation was no greater than the background at Denver. The same issue is again happening in the Fukushima prefecture.
    British radiation expert, Wade Allison, author of Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear (2009), addressed the people of Japan on television, October, 2011. He proposed that radiation limits be set the same way other such limits are set—not by seeing how little we can obtain, but what is the maximum we can tolerate, including a generous safety factor. The answer he gets is a 1000 mSv per year, or 1000 times the ICRP permissible limit. He says his proposed limit is still well under the clinical data on which he bases his proposal. A cancer risk from a 1000 mSv per year for chronic exposure or a one time exposure of 100 mSv is so low you cannot measure it.

    Ted Rockwell in a November 17, 2011, Atomic Insights guest editorial wrote, “Amid tens of thousands of deaths from non-nuclear causes, not a single life-shortening radiation injury has occurred. Not one. And while some people in the housing area are wearing cumbersome rad-con suits, filtered gas-masks, gloves and booties, there are people living in other places like Norway, Brazil, Iran, India where folks have lived normal lives for countless generations with radiation levels as much as a hundred times greater than the forbidden areas of the Fukushima homes.”
    “At Fukushima this is no abstract issue. People are being told they cannot return home for an indeterminate period – perhaps years. And efforts to decontaminate their home sites may require stripping off all the rich top-soil and calling it RadWaste. People formerly living there have been reduced to economic poverty, clinical depression, and even suicide.”
    “It’s time this draconian situation is resolved. A simple declaration of the facts about radiation protection from the proper authorities would be a good first step.”
    Here are a couple of sentences from Ted Rockwell's bio. “Dr. Rockwell has spent over 60 years in nuclear technologies. He is a Fellow of the American Nuclear Society and recipient of its first Lifetime Contribution Award, now known as the Rockwell Award. He has Distinguished Service Medals from both the Navy and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He was Technical Director of Admiral Hyman Rickover’s program to build the nuclear Navy and the first commercial atomic power station. He has written numerous books and technical papers, including the widely-used text, Reactor Shielding Design Manual.”

  11. Nice day for your article to go up. Is that why you link to a Daily Mail article?

    1. I'm not really sure what the point of your comment is but here are links to reputable sources concerning the Chinese pollution problem in connection to rare earth metals and it's effect on the export trade (including neodymium, which is used in magnets for wind farm production). There are widespread problems of contamination in Yellow River.

    2. The Daily Mail article link was me.. I was adding links to relevant new stories and went with the most popular ones.

      Also, as the aim of this blog is to promote public understanding, I thought news vendors like the daily mail would be easier for people to understand than scientific america etc.

      You can find much more information online and make your own conclusions, please don't take what is put on here as the gospel truth. It is only intended as an opinion piece (please read the small, italic disclaimer we put at the top for this reason)

      Regards, Matt.

    3. It went up on April Fools' Day. The Daily Mail is a fool's paper. It was an attempt at jocularity.

    4. Ohhh.. sorry, we completely missed your humour, thought it was a criticism on the information.
      But yeah, the scientific america, NY Times, and Reuters article didn't go up on April fools day.. and contain the same information but they aren't as easy to read, which is why I chose the daily mail.

  12. Fukushima radiation didn't cause the disaster. The disaster was fabricated, by overconservative regulations. Regulations, not risk, required people to evacuate. Please read Geoff Russel's piece that provides serious perspective on this travesty:

  13. This is a new idea for me, I have not careful solar radiation until an upcoming evaporation project we are installing a net pyrometer to estimate evaporation. dosimeter badges.I would like to potentially use this data for other purposes and will lookthrough some of these papers. It is interesting, thankyou.