Catastrophic nuclear reactor meltdowns like Chernobyl or Fukushima could happen every ten to 20 years, scientists warn

Jamie McGinnes – Daily Mail May 24, 2012

Devastating nuclear reactor meltdowns like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima could happen every decade, according to a disturbing new study.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, fear similar catastrophes could occur around the world every ten to 20 years – 200 times more frequently than previously thought.

And they said people in Western Europe have a higher risk than anybody else in the world of being affected by radioactive fallout from such a disaster.

The researchers based their gloomy predictions on the operating hours of all civil nuclear reactors and how many meltdowns there have been.

They also warned that half the radioactive caesium-137 produced, which was released following the Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns, would spread over an area reaching as far as 1,000 kilometres (about 620 miles) from the reactor.

Western Europe is likely to be contaminated once every 50 years, according to the research team led by Jos Lelieveld, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

The International Atomic Energy Agency designates an area as ‘contaminated’ if it has a reading of more than 40 kilobecquerels of caesium-137 per square metre.

Prof Lelieveld said Germany needed to carry out an ‘in-depth and public analysis of the actual risks of nuclear accidents’.

And he added: ‘In light of our findings I believe an internationally coordinated phasing out of nuclear energy should also be considered.’

Accidents at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979 and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 made nuclear power a politically toxic issue.

Radioactive contamination spread across much of Europe following the meltdown at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl plant.

The meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant following the March 2011 tsunami triggered a worldwide debate on the future of the energy source, leading to Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022.

Before the crisis, Japan provided almost a third of its electricity from 54 reactors.

But earlier this month it closed its last nuclear reactor on the island of Hokkaido for maintenance – leaving the country without electricity from atomic energy for the first time in more than four decades.

Worldwide, there are currently 440 nuclear reactors in operation, with 60 more planned.

The team in Mainz found German citizens in the densely populated southwestern part of the country run the highest risk of radioactive contamination in the world because of the numerous nuclear power plants near the borders between France, Belgium and Germany and the prevailing westerly wind.

If a nuclear meltdown happened in Western Europe, an area with a population of around 28 million people would be contaminated, they said.

This figure would be even higher in southern Asia, due to the dense populations.

A major nuclear accident there would affect around 34 million people, while in the eastern USA and east Asia this would be 14 to 21 million people, said the German scientists.

Prof Lelieveld, who is an atmospheric chemist, said: ‘Germany’s exit from the nuclear energy programme will reduce the national risk of radioactive contamination.

‘However, an even stronger reduction would result if Germany’s neighbours were to switch off their reactors.’

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