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There's A 50% Chance of Another Chernobyl Before 2050, Say Safety Specialists (technologyreview.com) 140

An anonymous reader writes from a report via MIT Technology Review: Spencer Wheatley and Didier Sornette at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Benjamin Sovacool at Aarhus University in Denmark have compiled the most comprehensive list of nuclear accidents ever created and used it to calculate the chances of future accidents. They say there is a 50:50 chance that a major nuclear disaster will occur somewhere in the world before 2050. "There is a 50 percent chance that a Chernobyl event (or larger) occurs in the next 27 years," they conclude. Since the International Atomic Energy Agency doesn't publish a historical database of the nuclear accidents it rates using the International Nuclear Event Scale, others, like Wheatley and co, have to compile their own list of accidents. They define an accident as "an unintentional incident or event at a nuclear energy facility that led to either one death (or more) or at least $50,000 in property damage." Each accident must have occurred during the generation, transmission, or distribution of nuclear energy, which includes accidents at mines, during transportation, or at enrichment facility, and so on. Fukushima was by far the most expensive accident in history at a cost of $166 billion, which is 60 percent of the total cost of all other nuclear accidents added together. Wheatley and co say their data suggests that the nuclear industry remains vulnerable to dragon king events, which are large unexpected events that are difficult to analyze because they follow a different statistical distribution, have unforeseen causes, and are few in number. "There is a 50% chance that a Fukushima event (or larger) occurs in the next 50 years," they say.
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There's A 50% Chance of Another Chernobyl Before 2050, Say Safety Specialists

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Either it happens, or it doesn't. Mathematics tells us that makes the odds 50/50.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @05:19PM (#52550037)

    Without a reliable data source, the confidence in that number is highly suspect.

    As someone who deals with environmental loads and return periods for building safety, I can say pretty confidently that they're pretty much WAGing that number if you really got down to how the data was evaluated. I would like to know what their predictions are, using the same type of methodology, for the stock market or, maybe more accurately, one segment of he stock market for the next 100-200 years, and let me know each point at which the value will double. Bonus points for doing it without any official industry data like the did with the incident data.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      On other news "there's a 50% chance (probably higher) the article is full bollocks.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Without a reliable data source, the confidence in that number is highly suspect.

      That is an understatement. They intentionally decided to ignore all the officially recorded data and come up with their own list of what they think was an accident, and they used things like newspaper articles and anti-nuke sites to create their base list of data. These so called 'experts' don't actually appear to have any background in nuclear power generation or knowledge of nuclear plant safety analysis. I guess anyone can be an expert these days.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        on top of that, it appears they included incidents from sites that weren't even nuclear power plants, like cold war waste sites. But, alas, the anti-nukes care little about facts and credibility. Here once again is proof that they can't carry on a good argument without twisting the truth till it is unrecognizable.
    • There are about 500 nuclear power plants worldwide and 24 years for this prediction to come true. There is a 1 in 24,000 chance that a given plant will have a Chernobyl event this year or a 1 in 48 that any plant will have a Chernobyl disaster this year. Both those numbers seem remarkably high and I agree that they are getting pretty liberal with their numbers to get to a 50% chance.
      • There is a 1 in 24,000 chance that a given plant will have a Chernobyl event this year or a 1 in 48 that any plant will have a Chernobyl disaster this year. Both those numbers seem remarkably high and I agree that they are getting pretty liberal with their numbers to get to a 50% chance.

        Indeed! Especially as no reactor like Chernobyl is in operation any more. All of the remaining RBMKs in service have been modified so that the void coefficient is never positive which means that an overheating reactor loses

    • by Rakarra ( 112805 )

      Well, the bar here for "a Chernobyl" is amazingly low. An accident is "an unintentional incident or event at a nuclear energy facility that led to either one death (or more) or at least $50,000 in property damage." That can be... that can be almost anything. A death OR property damage.

      So any unintentional incident that does more than $50,000 in property damage? Do you know how easy it is to do $50k in property damage especially in a facility like that?

  • by eepok ( 545733 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @05:20PM (#52550041) Homepage
    First off, the article is dated as "April 17, 2015". So, "Not News".

    The headline says "Chernobyl" (a stupid set of human errors leading to meltdown). The summary says "Fukushima" (the results of old tech meeting an extreme natural disaster". The article's own summary says it's a 50:50 chance of a "Three-Mile Island" (where no one was harmed). Or are we just talking an expensive incident? Or an actual meltdown?

    I'm an abject Slashdot apologist and I'll confidently say that this submission is crap.
    • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @05:37PM (#52550151)
      I also like how the headline says by 2050 and they quote in the body of the summary one of researchers saying in the next 50 years which would make it by 2065.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by bidule ( 173941 )

      Maybe mdsolar became an anonymous coward?

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I'd say there's a better than 50% chance of that.

    • by c ( 8461 ) <beauregardcp@gmail.com> on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @07:02PM (#52550579)

      The article's own summary says it's a 50:50 chance of a "Three-Mile Island" (where no one was harmed). Or are we just talking an expensive incident? Or an actual meltdown?

      I'm curious as to how this 50% compares against the odds of a major (possibly global-scale) conflict over energy resources. I'd certainly take a Chernobyl or Fukushima over nuclear war...

    • by Grog6 ( 85859 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @07:16PM (#52550637)

      Read the IAEA report on the Chernobyl disaster.

      It reads like bad comedy; operators trying to follow a test program while the reactor was in a completely unstable state.

      The REAL kicker: The SCRAM command to shut down the reactor made it go "Prompt Critical" and explode.

      No shit.

      "As can be seen from the foregoing, the event which initiated the accident was the pressing of the EPS-5 button (SCRAM Button) when the RBMK-1000 reactor was operating at low power with a greater than permissible number of manual control rods withdrawn from the reactor. " pp67

      http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/p... [iaea.org]

      Scariest thing I've read this decade. :)

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @09:28PM (#52551281)

        The scariest thing about Chernobyl -- and this is coming from someone who studied nuclear engineering at the graduate level -- is that it was a RMBK reactor, which allows for a positive feedback loop. On a largeish scale, that's just an insane design as it means that the reactor has the potential to go critical unless there is active human intervention.

        In contrast, just about every other reactor design has a built-in negative feedback mechanism of some kind. That is, while you can actively screw up the reactor -- slam the control rods full open and override the automatic emergency shutdown system for example -- and cause a problem, you can also more or less just walk away from the controls and the reactor will slowly shut down by itself after some hours or days with zero chance of a meltdown.

        • In contrast, just about every other reactor design has a built-in negative feedback mechanism of some kind. That is, while you can actively screw up the reactor -- slam the control rods full open and override the automatic emergency shutdown system for example -- and cause a problem, you can also more or less just walk away from the controls and the reactor will slowly shut down by itself after some hours or days with zero chance of a meltdown.

          As Fukushima shows that happens not to be true.

          Most currently running designs will shut down, but if the cooling is turned off most of them will still melt down due to decay heat.

          Now, without massive destruction of surrounding infrastructure (like an enormous earthquake and tsunami) and near-total incompetence by the operator that is not likely to happen. But, as Fukishima shows, it can happen.

    • This article is total BS. For another Chernobyl to happen, we need nuclear reactors without any containement vessel and confinement for the reactor. How many of these still exist today and are operating?
    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      One of the features of "black swan" events is that after the fact they're rationalized to appear more predictable than they actually were. So attributing Chernobyl to "human stupidity" is an explanation that only seems to explain. The problem is it gives you exactly zero insight; bad decisions are a factor in every disaster that's ever occurred, and was present but for some reason inoperative in every situation where a disaster was averted. Saying a catastrophe was "caused by stupid human error" is like

    • by Rakarra ( 112805 )

      It sounds like they're saying "another Chernobyl" like some people say we'll have "another 9/11." They mean, general nuclear accident. And then set the bar for "accident" so low that couldn't possibly be wrong. 50% is pessimistic, by their standards I'd say 90%+

  • by Vihai ( 668734 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @05:20PM (#52550047) Homepage

    To me it does mean that we should invest more to replace old reactors and replace them with newer models which are not subject to the same kind of failure with those consequences. Better yet we have to invest on LFTRs.
    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo&world3,net> on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @05:31PM (#52550117) Homepage Journal

      We should replace old reactors, but not with new ones. The costs are too high, and it takes many decades to return the land to a usable state anyway.

      As an aside, they are looking at building a sarcophagus for Fukushima. The damage from multiple meltdowns and the difficulty of cleaning it up means that just leaving it for future generations might be the only option.

      The whole area is starting to look like a complete write-off.

      • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

        by Vihai ( 668734 )

        The high cost is a myth. A nuclear reactor produces so much energy in its life that the decommissioning costs are only a small fraction of the kWh sold on the market. Do you want to double the reserve? Fine, it would still be economically valid.

        That said, the "usability" of the land is a moot point. How "usable" is the land of a hydroelectric basin that is permanently made unusable *by design* ?

        • by swb ( 14022 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @06:36PM (#52550455)

          The land question is an interesting point, but the water basins can be used for storing fresh water, water surface can be used recreationally, and in places like the Tennessee Valley and other places, more land is usable downstream because flooding has been controlled.

          I think the nuke plant land argument is mostly bogus because unless you have a Chernobyl event, the lost land to a decommissioned reactor is relatively small in the scheme of things.

          • I dare say, a coal fired power plant is going to be a much bigger land foot print.... Land that you won't ever put back to it's original use... So why not just build a new plant there?
        • Fine, it would still be economically valid.

          Yeah, but keeping the required multi-billion dollar investment group together over several decades is like herding cats. Capitalists like fast returns, especially when the sums are this high.
          • Capitalists like fast returns

            Capitalists like the largest returns available at the time of deciding what to invest in.

            The "speed" of the return is only of valid importance under the artificial restriction of not selling the appreciating asset before its fully matured.

            For instance it takes over 10 years before the planting of pecan trees to the harvesting those pecans trees. It still makes financial sense to start pecan farms. The cost of starting such a farm is near the cost of the land, the value of a producing farm is much great

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          Myth? The new Hinkley Point reactors in the UK are going to be insanely expensive, far exceeding the value of energy they generate. In fact, the government had to guarantee an extremely wholesale high price for the electricity just to convince the operator to actually build it, and they are still considering cancelling. Identical reactors in other European countries are already behind schedule and way over budget.

          To give you an idea, the average strike price for electricity in the UK is about £5

          • The new Hinkley Point reactors in the UK are going to be insanely expensive, far exceeding the value of energy they generate.

            Nope.

        • The high cost is a myth. A nuclear reactor produces so much energy in its life that the decommissioning costs are only a small fraction of the kWh sold on the market.

          If the high decommissioning cost is a myth, why do the German NPP operators ask for billions of Euros for the decommissioning of their plants that ran far longer than originally planned?

      • by khallow ( 566160 )

        The costs are too high, and it takes many decades to return the land to a usable state anyway.

        Why would you want to do that when you can put a new nuclear reactor on that land instead?

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          You can't just build a new reactor on the site. Removing the old one takes many decades at least, because it is high level waste. You can't just lift the old one out and drop a new one in, you have to replace all the plumbing (which is now contaminated) and buildings etc.

          Do some research into how long it takes to decommission a nuclear plant. I mean really decommission, not just entomb it and leave it for decades to cool off, I mean to clear the land and put it back to a usable state where you could build a

          • by khallow ( 566160 )

            You can't just build a new reactor on the site. Removing the old one takes many decades at least, because it is high level waste. You can't just lift the old one out and drop a new one in, you have to replace all the plumbing (which is now contaminated) and buildings etc.

            And the obvious rebuttal is that you don't have to do anything of those things in order to build another reactor on the site. You can always move the reactor off to one side. Most plants have some clearance around them.

            Or sure, you could just move the plumbing and other radioactive stuff off to the side and build the reactor where the old one was. We have millennia of experience with putting new buildings on the foundations of a previous building.

            Do some research into how long it takes to decommission a nuclear plant. I mean really decommission, not just entomb it and leave it for decades to cool off, I mean to clear the land and put it back to a usable state where you could build a new reactor on it. Current projects for UK plants that shut down in the late 80s/early 90s are 90 years. I and almost everyone alive when they started will be dead before they can re-use that land.

            We don't need to decommission a reactor, if we build anoth

            • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

              So why does this never, ever happen? Could it be that building a nuclear power plant and then decommissioning it is somewhat more complex than you assume? I mean, if it was that easy they would do it just to take advantage of the existing grid ties and land use permits etc, right?

              • So why does this never, ever happen?

                It doesn't?

                The last PWR built in the UK was Sizewell B. What do you think Sizewell A was?

                The two EPRs planned are Hinkley point C. What do you think Hinkley point A and B were?

                The EPR being build in France is Flamanvile 3. What do you think Flamanville 1 and 2 are?

                • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

                  They are all near by, not on the same site. The old sites are either still running or being decommissioned for another 70+ years. You can't just lift the old reactor out and dump an new one on the same site.

              • by khallow ( 566160 )

                Could it be that building a nuclear power plant and then decommissioning it is somewhat more complex than you assume?

                Then why am I advocating skipping the decommissioning step? I think unfortunately, that your comment about decommissioning nuclear reactors, "takes many decades at least" is on the mark. Thus, the obvious solution is to don't do that. It also means a lot of very costly hurdles are already overcome (as your mentioned examples of grid ties and land use permits).

                Also, I see that Eunuchswear mentioned [slashdot.org] counterexamples to your assertion.

                • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

                  If you don't decommission, what are you planning to do to make the reactor safe? Bury it under concrete or something like Chernobyl or possibly Fukushima if they decide they can't do any better?

                  • by khallow ( 566160 )

                    If you don't decommission, what are you planning to do to make the reactor safe?

                    What does safe mean here? It sounds to me like there is a ridiculous standard of safety being advocated here that can be best met by ignoring it, especially given that advocates like you are very careful not to give the nuclear industry a reasonable and cost-effective way to comply with those standards. I don't believe the safety issue is introduced in good faith and as a result, I don't believe one should comply with it.

                    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

                      Safe means that the land can be returned to general use with no special measures needed. So entombing is not acceptable, because the tomb needs to be monitored and damage avoided, and obviously can't be built on.

                    • by khallow ( 566160 )

                      Safe means that the land can be returned to general use with no special measures needed.

                      Exactly. And my point all along is that you don't need to even think about that standard of safety, if you continue to use the land for nuclear power. Then it is not going to be used for "general use" and we can use a variety of "special measures" indefinitely.

      • The costs are too high

        No they aren't. The costs associated with nuclear are purely imaginary costs caused by regulatory, legal and insurance overheads. This is why eastern countries are happy to continue investing in the technology. Many of these costs are already taken care of when upgrading an existing facility vs building a new one.

        and it takes many decades to return the land to a usable state anyway.

        Sunk costs. The best places for new reactors are on site with old ones.

        The whole area is starting to look like a complete write-off.

        All the more reason to upgrade the old crap.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          The costs associated with nuclear are purely imaginary costs caused by regulatory, legal and insurance overheads.

          Recent history suggests that forgoing regulation and comprehensive insurance is a bad idea.

    • Even existing reactors can't compete with wind and solar without vast state subsidies. No point in raising electricity costs just to prop up a dying industry.
  • ... or it doesn't.

    So yeah, that's a 50% chance.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    What are the chances of an accident at a conventional plant. I bet they are higher than this. Typical liberal fear mongering. Nuclear power is the safest most environmentally friendly means of energy production currently available. Yet the liberals are afraid of it because they watched a movie in the 1970 by Jodie Foster.

  • So, 50:50. Either it'll happen or it won't. That's some grand statisticizing right there.

  • There is a 95% chance that safety specialists just made up those numbers out of thin air.

  • by KonoWatakushi ( 910213 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @07:05PM (#52550593)

    Radiation killed about 50 at Chernobyl, and none at Fukushima and Three Mile Island. Meanwhile, pollution from burning fossil fuels causes millions of premature deaths every year. Even with a meltdown every year, nuclear would be a vast improvement if it replaced burning of fossil fuels, and incidents are increasingly unlikely with modern reactors, should people let us build them. (If one is objective, nuclear would even reduce loss of life over installation and maintenance of wind and solar generators, and at far less cost.)

    The truth is, radiation is typically harmless, and can even be used to improve health. [atomicinsights.com] The body has repair mechanisms which routinely deal with an enormously greater amount of chemical damage from oxygen and such. It takes a whole lot of radiation to have any negative health effects, and current regulatory limits are based on bad science [atomicinsights.com] funded by fossil fuel interests.

    People have been deceived for more than half a century, and mainstream “environmental” organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of Earth, Sierra Club, NRDC, etc. continue the effort, often funded by those same interests. If you are genuinely concerned about the environment and climate change, look to ecological conservation groups and leading climate scientists, which uniformly support nuclear. It is the only option which is scalable to global needs and also has the smallest environmental footprint.

    Learn more about radiation from Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information [radiationeffects.org], or see the articles tagged LNT [atomicinsights.com] and Health Effects [atomicinsights.com].

    • psst uranium mining, I note you didn't mention that.

      • by KonoWatakushi ( 910213 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @09:45PM (#52551351)

        Uranium mining is in the noise of todays mining activities, and would remain so even if we stopped mining coal. It can also be extracted directly from seawater, and from rare earth mine tailings which also contain thorium. Nuclear fuel is so energy dense that you barely need any at all; the worlds entire yearly energy demand could be met with byproducts from a single small rare earth mine. The tremendous energy density also puts the cost of the fuel in the noise, and even seawater extraction wouldn't impact energy costs more than a fraction of a cent per kWh.

        To mention something so insignificant, you are either ignorant or drinking the green kool-aid. A hell of a lot more mining is needed for wind turbines and solar panels, and neither are remotely environmentally friendly to produce in the quantities needed. Nor do renewables replace fossil fuels, because they are not reliable.

        • To mention something so insignificant, you are either ignorant or drinking the green kool-aid.

          Well, that's what nuclear playboys always say. They want to ignore groundwater contamination [foe.org.au], just like frackers. The Navajo nation is still drinking groundwater contaminated by uranium mining. Rock waste from uranium mining is substantially more hazardous (and poorly managed) than the industry likes to claim, and runoff from that is hazardous as well.

          See, every time humans get involved in something, they start trying to cut corners to maximize personal profit. And in practice, activities which could be rel

        • by MrKaos ( 858439 )

          Uranium mining is in the noise of todays mining activities, and would remain so even if we stopped mining coal.

          You have to crush 500tons of rock to extract 1kg of uranium. Acid leech mining dissolves rock and it is pumped to the surface. You choose between a highly energy intensive mining process that creates copious amount of water soluble radium that pollutes water tables or megalitres of radioactive sulfuric acid, which also pollutes water tables. Specifically what do you propose been done with these mine tailings?

          It can also be extracted directly from seawater,

          Which takes so much energy that it is pointless extracting it in the first place. Specifically whic

      • Because it's not worth mentioning. We could shut down 4 major coal mines for every small uranium mine we open. Net win.

    • To paraphrase the quote oft attributed to Churchill, "Nuclear energy is the most dangerous form of energy, except for all the others."
    • You post casually bypasses the main issue of *radionuclides* being released into the environment from these accidents. pu-239 is fatal at doses of 1 microgram, an iron analogue when presented to a metabolism, is an inhalant in the form of plutonium oxide causing lung cancer and highly water soluble in the form of plutonium chloride and when absorbed in the body causes leukemia. There a plethora of other radionuclides released in these accidents.

      You speak of radiation exposure as if it is the main issue. I

  • Benjamin Sovacool has a known anti-nuclear bias, and his topics range from economics to engineering and now to safety, none of which are areas in which he has any education or expertise.

  • by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @08:45PM (#52551073)

    The commentary, by actual MIT people, thoroughly melt down this fake analysis.

  • by blindseer ( 891256 ) <blindseerNO@SPAMearthlink.net> on Wednesday July 20, 2016 @08:47PM (#52551085)

    This "study" doesn't even appear to make any comparison to the loss of life and property from reduced electrical power output from taking these nuclear power plants off line or any comparison to the loss of life and property from producing the electricity from sources other than nuclear power. The reason they do not do this is obvious to anyone that has seen the death rates to energy produced for the energy sources in common use.

    Nuclear power is the safest energy source we have available to us.

    This is a bunch of fear mongering which serves only to make future deployment of nuclear power more expensive and therefore cause more deaths. Again, nuclear power is the safest form of energy we have and therefore anyone that opposes nuclear power is lobbying for more people to die.

    Here's another thing, when it comes to our "carbon footprint" there is nothing that produces more energy with less carbon in the air than nuclear power except hydro. We've run out of rivers to dam up so if we want to even maintain the energy output we have now and not increase our carbon footprint then we need to build more nuclear power plants. If global warming is going to kill us all, and even assuming this "study" has even a grain of truth to it, then the answer is more nuclear power.

    Anyone that claims man made global warming is a problem and opposes nuclear power is either completely ignorant or completely stupid.

    • California will soon become nuclear free and all the power will be covered by renewables and efficency. You seem very misinformed.
      • You have said nothing that contradicts what I have said. I did not say that nuclear cannot be replaced by unreliable energy sources, I said that doing so would be at a greater cost of life and property.

  • Embrittlement [wikipedia.org] of the reactor and key metal components from Neutron bombardment [slashdot.org] exposed to radiactive isotopes is the key factor that limits the lifespan of nuclear reactors. These are called "S" class facilities.

    In the early phases of the facilities service life (roughly 10 years) is when basis design issues are mostly exposed and shaken out and stabilize for the bulk of the service life of a nuclear reactor facility. In the "old age" (40+ years) of the facility is when the embrittlement of the functional

    • by MrKaos ( 858439 )
      It would seem it is not possible to have a reasoned conversation about the issues with nuclear power without being down modded. If we can even talk about the issues the the likely hood of an accident is closer to %100.
  • Something either happens, or not. There's a 50:50 chance we will be discovered by aliens in the next 2 years (either it will happen, or it won't... it's a 50/50 chance).

  • The US stands in line for the next catastrophe. Owing to the government's liability for loss of property and life through the Price-Anderson Act, during times of recession, the government could become insolvent should the accident occur in high property value areas. The very badly run Indian Point plant is an example.
  • Makes you wonder what solar company funded this "research." Oh, wait, you're saying that only oil companies fund bogus research? Riiiiight.

  • My understanding is: thorium is much safer.

  • They didn't post the math or reasoning behind their estimate, so there's no way to critique it. Click-bait. Nothing to see here...move along.

  • and anything else "nuclear-related" that isn't at a power plant should be included in any statistical analysis to predict the probability of the next Chernobyl.

    Each accident must have occurred during the generation, transmission, or distribution of nuclear energy. That includes accidents at mines, during transportation by truck or pipeline, or at an enrichment facility, a manufacturing plant, and so on.

  • Why do we keep trying to tame a potential run-away chain reaction if there are perfectly good alternatives? [wavewatching.net]

You see but you do not observe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes"

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