Much greater risk of Nuclear Reactor disaster, estimated from the historical record

The Risk of a Nuclear Reactor Disaster  Cultural Psychology, Satyagraha, 2 April 15

Utility companies, to support their claims of nuclear reactor safety, present artificial risk estimates — such as no more than one core meltdown per 30,000 years of reactor operation — that are based on faulty assumptions, guessing, and unvalidated theoretical models. Our only solid source of information on reactor risk is the historical record. According to the International Atomic Energy Commission (2013), as of 2012 a total of 581 civilian reactors had logged 15,247 years in operation. There have also been three major reactor accidents: Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three-Mile Island (counting the three reactor accidents at Fukushima as a single event). This produces a rate of 3/15247 or 0.000197 such accidents per reactor-year. That number may seem small, but, as we shall see, it actually indicates extreme danger.

The number calculated above is an empirical rate based on a limited sample. What we really seek is the long-run population risk rate. (Similarly, we might flip a coin twice and observe heads both times, making the empirical proportion 1.0, but the long-run population rate is 0.50.)…….Assuming that 100 reactors operate in the United States for an average of 25 years each, the conservatively estimated Total Risk of at least one meltdown accident ranges from about 60% to 72%. (Over 40 years, even the nonconservative estimate is above 50%.) These estimates are consistent with other recent analyses (e.g., Ghys 2011; Smythe 2011; Lelieveld et al. 2012; Ha-Duong & Journé 2014).

One can easily imagine a utility company looking at these results and countering: “You can’t go by past events. The industry learns from mistakes. Reactors today are better designed and safer than those at Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island.” However it is unlikely that today’s American reactors are better designed than those at Fukushima. Further, more complex designs supply new opportunities for malfunction. And human error is always a danger.

In short, if we base risk estimates on the historical record — our best, most objective, and perhaps only reliable source of data — it is more likely than not that a serious accident will occur at one or more US reactors within the next 25 years. The unacceptability of this risk becomes even more salient when we consider that we are all neighbors. An accident that happens anywhere in the country is not “the other guy’s problem.” We’re all in this together.



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