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World Needs to Get Ready for the Next Nuclear Plant Accident via Bloomberg

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Of the 176 new reactors planned across the globe, half will be in nations that had no nuclear plants when disaster crippled the U.S. Three Mile Island reactor in 1979 and the Chernobyl reactor blew up in present day Ukraine in 1986.

As countries such as China and India embrace atomic power even after the Fukushima reactor meltdowns in 2011 caused mass evacuations because of radiation fallout, scientists warn the next nuclear accident is waiting to happen and could be in a country with little experience to deal with it.

“The cold truth is that, no matter what you do on the technological improvements side, accidents will occur — somewhere, someplace,” said Joonhong Ahn, a professor at the Department of Nuclear Engineering of University of California, Berkeley. The consequences of radiation release, contamination and evacuation of people is “clear and obvious,” Ahn said. That means governments and citizens should be prepared, not just nuclear utilities, he said.

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The problem is that the causes of the three events followed no pattern, and the inability to immediately contain them escalated the episodes into global disasters with huge economic, environmental and political consequences. Even if no deaths have yet been officially linked to Fukushima radiation, for example, cleanup costs have soared to an estimated $196 billion and could take more than four decades to complete.

If nuclear is to remain a part of the world’s energy supply, the industry must come up with solutions to make sure contamination — and all other consequences — do not spread beyond station grounds, Gregory Jaczko, ex-chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an interview in Tokyo.

“We have this accident and people will say, you know, it was caused by this and that,” Jaczko said. “But the next accident is going to be something different. Nobody can tell you where or when or what exactly it is going to be. You really need to do more on the consequence side.”

Real Consequences
The usefulness of the math after the world’s three major civilian accidents is academic, according to Jaczko.

“Once you have an accident, a low-probability and high consequence event, you can no longer call it a low probability event,” Jaczko said. “It is an event that’s happened and you cannot ignore the consequences simply because it was never supposed to happen. The consequences are real. Probabilities are always hypothetical.”
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Destroyed Communities

The official toll from the reactor explosion at Chernobyl was put at 31 deaths. Radiation clean-up work, however, involved about 600,000 people, while 200,000 locals had to be relocated.

The accident contaminated 150,000 kilometers of land and according to the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev it was a factor in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In Japan, the meltdown of three Fukushima reactors helped unseat premier Naoto Kan and forced the evacuation of about 160,000 people, destroying local fishing, farming and tourism industries along the way. It also brought tens of thousands of anti-nuclear protesters out onto the streets in the country’s biggest demonstrations since the 1960s. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator and once the world’s biggest non-state power producer, would have been bankrupted by the Fukushima accident but for billions of dollars in government aid.

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Nuclear Future?

For Jaczko, the industry’s inability to resolve this issue could mean the end of nuclear generation.

“If we look at this technology and we challenge ourselves to make technology that meets this standard then we’ll see that there are ways to do it,” Jaczko said. “But if there aren’t ways to do it — economically viable ways to do it — then we have to face the consequences of that decision. That means that this is perhaps then not a technology that we want to rely on well into the future.”

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