Could Chernobyl Happen Today?

A nuclear danger sign
August 1, 2019

Like many other people this summer, I was hooked on HBO’s new miniseries Chernobyl. The fictional show depicts the real life disaster when in 1986, a nuclear meltdown occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, creating the worst nuclear disaster the world had ever seen. The show does a great job illustrating both the horrific immediate impact of a nuclear accident and also the lingering years and decades of clean up needed to control the contamination that ran throughout the entire ecosystem.

After watching the program, I pulled out my computer and was distressed to find that Philadelphia is in a 50-mile fallout zone. If there were to be similar disaster event at the Limerick power plant, we would be impacted. According to the Natural Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, over one third of Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. Of the country's 20 most highly populated metro areas, at least part of 14 of them are within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.

But how much is there a cause for concern? How likely is it that another cataclysmic event could occur? Data shows that nuclear power plant accidents are low and declining and the consequences of an accident are minimal compared with other commonly accepted risks.

Harold Feiveson, a nuclear expert at Princeton University, wrote that, assuming the chance of a severe accident were one in a million per reactor year, a future nuclear capacity of 1,000 reactors worldwide would be faced with a 1 percent chance of such an accident each 10-year period. He calls this risk “low but not negligible.”

Additionally, the World Nuclear Association points out that there have only been three major accidents (Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island) that have occurred in over 17,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries. Not a bad track record.

And the world has certainly learned from past mistakes. There are no reactors like the one used in Chernobyl (RBMK) operational in the United States. Human operators have learned from the errors made decades ago. Following Fukushima, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released recommendations and asked all nuclear facilities to submit plans for flooding and earthquake preparedness. So if the same scenario occurs again, all nuclear plants are better equipped to manage the problem.

While there is some risk, there is also an important benefit. With today’s available technologies, nuclear  plays a key role in a decarbonized future. As we turn away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner sources of energy, nuclear can have a large role as a huge source of clean power. Does the risk posed by catastrophic climate change outweigh the underling risk of a nuclear disaster? Many would say yes.

Not to mention the benefit when compared to dirtier fuel sources. Living near a coal fired power plant can lead to, “higher death rates and at earlier ages, along with increased risks of respiratory disease, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and other health problems.” While it doesn’t have the dramatic effect of a nuclear disaster event, living by dirty fossil fuels is a risk that millions endure every day.

Nuclear, like many technologies, cannot be 100% safe. There will always be some risk. But it is important to not let the risks outweigh the benefits.

Our blog highlights the research, opinions, and insights of individual authors. It does not represent the voice of the Kleinman Center.

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