An Overview of Nuclear Power Safety Concerns

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    Stockholm (NordSIP) – Safety has been a longstanding concern surrounding nuclear power. The accidents at Three Mile Island (USA – 1979), Chernobyl (USSR/Ukraine – 1986) and Fukushima (Japan – 2011) still stand as vivid examples of poor nuclear safety.

    However, according to data from the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the IEA, more people die in accidents related to conventional energy production than in nuclear – about 24 deaths/TWh for fossil fuels and 0.07 deaths/TWh for nuclear power, respectively.

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    High Profile; Not High Frequency

    Nuclear energy deaths and accidents are high-profile rather than high frequency. The 2011 Fukushima meltdown did not directly kill anybody, but it paved the way for the displacement of over 160,000 people, as well as an evacuation which resulted in multiple deaths. The radioactive clean-up and the civil damages are expected to cost around US$200 billion. Had the Fukushima meltdown not been contained, the resulting accident would have followed a similar fate to Chernobyl’s.

    A 2006 United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) report describes Chernobyl as “the worst-case scenario”. The report notes that the meltdown released radionuclides, which have been linked to over 6000 cases of thyroid cancer in children and young adults at the time. The disaster displaced 220,000 people from Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation and caused major disruptions in social and economic life of those affected.

    However, the long-term effects of the disaster may be exaggerated in the public zeitgeist. “Apart from this increase (in thyroid cancer), there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure,” the same UNSCEAR report claims.

    No Small Accidents

    The problem with nuclear power plant safety and accidents is that there is no small accident. The world and the nuclear energy industry has gotten better at implementing and managing the necessary procedures to contain the costs of the accident’s fallout. However, for all the improvements and measures implemented to minimise the risk, Japanese governmental estimates of the total cost of dealing with the Fukushima disaster rise up to JPY21.5 trillion (US$188 million). There are also no cheap nuclear accidents.

    This article belongs to a five-part series on nuclear considerations relevant for climate change. Click here to read the other contributions to this series.

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