Headline got your attention, didn't it? If it didn't, I can only assume you're the most hardened, apocalypse-embracing survivalist on the blogosphere. As for the rest of us, the prospect seems terrifying, at least at first. A new report from the Max Planck Institute has determined that going forward, we're likely to see many more severe accidents at nuclear reactors than we'd previously anticipated.
As in, some 200 times more often that previously calculated. But don't bolt for the fallout shelter just yet; there are caveats aplenty to consider here.
Catastrophic nuclear accidents such as the core meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima are more likely to happen than previously assumed. Based on the operating hours of all civil nuclear reactors and the number of nuclear meltdowns that have occurred, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz have calculated that such events may occur once every 10 to 20 years (based on the current number of reactors) -- some 200 times more often than estimated in the past. The researchers also determined that, in the event of such a major accident, half of the radioactive caesium-137 would be spread over an area of more than 1,000 kilometres away from the nuclear reactor.Obviously, that "200 times more" figure is an upgrade from a super-conservative estimate, one made by the US Nuclear Regulatory Committee in 1990. In reality, it means we should gear up for another Fukushima every decade or so. With 440 nuclear reactors worldwide, and 60 more waiting in the wings, MPIC has determined that further meltdowns are imminent, just a matter of time. Which is a little foreboding, to say the least—and nothing stirs the popular imagination like nuclear disaster.
But perhaps it's not time to panic. Two other reports released recently—one from the UN and one from the World Health Organization—show that the radiation released wasn't as bad as previously feared. None of the deaths from the struggle to secure Fukushima's reactors were from radiation, for instance.
Nature reports that the WHO's "preliminary estimate of the radiation dose received by the public ... is mostly good news — the doses are very low, and very few cancers would be expected as a result." And ABC notes that in the UN's "124-page report, it added that neighboring countries had levels similar to normal background radiation and for the rest of the world there was some minor exposure through food," while there were some areas in Japan where radiation was just above cancer-causing levels.
Both reports seem to confirm that the radiation released in the wake of the disaster haven't led to the far-reaching impacts feared at the time of the catastrophe. Each ought to bolster the arguments of those like George Monbiot, the environmentalist who famously endorsed nuclear power after deeming the disaster relatively benign, who wrote in his controversial column at the time: "I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions ... Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small."
With that in mind, the question becomes this: are we willing to suffer a nuclear meltdown every 10-20 years in exchange for carbon-free power? Remember, climate change is accelerating, China is still building coal plants—yet activists still hone in on nuke stations. I'm no great lover of nuclear: it's expensive, creates a toxic waste problem, and is, yes, more dangerous than other energy sources on the menu. But the transition to renewables is already taking far too long, and coal plants kill far more people each and every day than Fukushima did all told. Coal—which is the prime driver for climate change—should be the public enemy number one, even if it is less frightening on a visceral level.
It might sounds callous, and there's no doubt that what happened at Fukushima was a great tragedy, but a coldly pragmatic prognosis might be that the world can possibly absorb a handful more nuclear disasters—but not a continued reliance on coal.