How Safe is it to Live Close to a Nuclear Power Plant?
Even the most stubborn of non-prepper types might be worried about living too close to a nuclear power plant.
Indeed, the concerns about safety are not just at a personal level (some people attempt to keep their distance from nuclear power plants) but also at a national level – many countries forbid their construction, and more recently, some countries which have been reliant on nuclear power for a substantial part of their total electricity needs are abandoning nuclear power and closing down their plants, again due to concerns about the safety of the reactors.
There’s probably not a single person in the US who doesn’t know about the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant’s near total meltdown, even though it occurred 34 years ago in 1979, and there’s even fewer people in the entire world who are not acquainted with Chernobyl (a 1986 event). Most recently, even if people don’t remember the name of the location, the Japanese nuclear power plant crisis at Fukushima had so many people stocking up on Iodine tablets that they became as scarce as ammunition is at present.
So it is unsurprisingly common to see on typical sorts of hazard and ‘do not locate here’ prepper retreat selection maps, that prominent marking is given to not just the location of currently operating nuclear power plants, but also to the location of decommissioned plants as well.
All this focus on nuclear power plants begs the question – just how much of a threat do they pose? Let’s have a look, first of all, at the potential dangers of what has gone wrong in past nuclear power plant accidents, and then secondly, evaluate the risk of such events in the future. The results are surprising.
The Implications of a Nuclear Power Plant Mishap
Problems with a nuclear power plant can vary from trivial to catastrophic. Trivial mishaps occur from time to time, but they never escalate to an emergency because backups and safety systems kick in and resolve the issue before it escalates.
If backups fail, there are other design features that are intended to minimize the extent of any worst case scenario events, chief among which is the containment structure around the power plant itself.
But, of course, Murphy’s Law applies to nuclear power plants and even to triple redundant safety systems, just as much as it does to anything and everything else. So we have, on occasion in the past, seen events that have resulted in the release of nuclear/radioactive materials. A chilling consideration is that even the ‘worst case’ scenarios that have occurred to date (especially Fukushima) weren’t truly worst case – as bad as they were, they could have been much worse than they ended up as being.
So what is prudent to consider in terms of possible worst case events?
According to this document, local government authorities plan for two rings of danger around a nuclear power plant. The first has a 10 mile radius, within which there’s a danger of direct radiation exposure, the second is a much larger zone with a 50 mile radius where radiation and fallout might contaminate food and water.
These are fairly nonsense measures with little science underlying them. Let’s compare this plan with the reality of what we’ve seen in past events.
The problems at the Japanese nuclear reactor complex at Fukushima are interesting to consider. According to this page, the Japanese created a 20 km radius exclusion zone (ie about 13 miles), but considerable radiation was received at much greater distances and small levels of fallout made it all the way across the Pacific and landed in the US. Furthermore, some commentators have suggested maybe the Japanese understated the amount of radioactivity released and its impacts.
Going back to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, for which there is still a 30 km radiused exclusion zone around the power plant (18.5 miles) there are also remaining radiation hot spots in places out as far as almost 200 miles from the reactor – see the map on this page. In the early period shortly after the release of radiation, some hot spots existed as much as 300 miles from the reactor.
On the other hand, our own Three Mile Island event in 1979 involved the partial meltdown of a reactor, but only a very limited release of radiation, and according to this page, no-one has subsequently died from the radiation released. At the time of the event, initially a 5 mile radius evacuation zone was suggested, and then that was briefly extended to recommending voluntary evacuation within 20 miles of the plant, but many people quite sensibly ignored this.
Our point is simply that there’s little way of predicting what the impacts of a problem at a nuclear power plant may be, but worst case scenarios can see seriously elevated levels of radiation from fallout, even over 200 miles from the plant, depending of course not just on the nature of the event but the prevailing winds.
The Scope and Scale of Nuclear Accidents
Clearly, there is a huge difference between trivial and massive nuclear accidents. This page from the International Atomic Energy Agency has an interesting explanation of the INES – International Nuclear Event Scale. The scale is logarithmic, like the Richter scale for earthquakes, which means each level is ten times more serious than the level before.
Events that occur at levels 0 – 3 on this scale are trivial and probably of no impact to people outside the power plant. Level 4 events are ones which there might be some local release, but of a minor level – you could leisurely walk away from the contaminated area and be safe.
Level 5 is where we start to become at more widespread risk, although as this Wikipedia list of INES events points out (somewhat obliquely) ordinary members of the public have apparently never died as a result of a Level 5 event at a power plant.
Level 6 definitely involves casualties, but there has only ever, in the entire history of nuclear power, been one such event, in the Soviet Union in 1957.
Level 7 events – the maximum level on the scale – have only occurred twice, at Chernobyl, also in the Soviet Union (now Ukraine) and Fukushima.
Part of the reason for the high number of resulting deaths from Chernobyl was the slowness of the Soviet authorities to acknowledge the events at the reactor, and the slowness of them subsequently evacuating civilians from the affected area.
In contrast, the Fukushima event was reasonably responsibly handled, with apparently – so far – only two directly related deaths, and neither from radiation (two employees who drowned).
Here’s a helpful Wikipedia page with a reasonably complete listing of accidents at all civilian nuclear facilities (not just power plants) and – for the sake of completeness, although not part of this discussion of nuclear power plant risks, here is a similar page on military nuclear accidents.
The Degree of Risk
Now it is time to put these past events and present risks in perspective.
Sure, we all are very aware of Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But how many others have also occurred?
The answer might surprise you. As you can see from the preceding section, very few other problems have occurred at a level that resulted in the release of any radiation outside the power plant itself. Furthermore, although it is hard to appreciate this from the hysterical coverage given at the time and for ever after, the Three Mile Island accident was trivial in nature and scope.
So, let’s now look at the two – only two – accidents involving appreciable releases of radiation.
The first of these – Chernobyl – involved a type of reactor design that is not used in the west. It has a terrible weakness inherent in its design – if temperatures increase in the reactor, this creates a positive feedback loop that causes the reactor to increase its level of activity, which increases the temperatures further, which speeds up the reactor more, and so on until, all of a sudden, you have a Chernobyl disaster. All western style reactors have a negative feedback loop design – if the temperature increases, the nuclear reaction decreases, and so the temperature drops back down again.
In other words, a Chernobyl type accident could not happen in the west.
As for the Fukushima event, this was precipitated not by any problems originating from the reactor itself, but by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The reactors shut down because of the earthquake, and so stopped generating power, which was needed to keep the cooling pumps operating.
The earthquake also caused a loss of outside power coming into the facility, so the on-site emergency generators started up. All was good until the tsunami arrived, flooding the generator rooms, floating away the fuel tanks, and causing the generators to fail. With loss of cooling, the power rods heated up beyond safe limits and melted down.
The Fukushima event was the result of poor planning and lack of consideration of external vulnerabilities. Everything actually worked perfectly and as it should until the tsunami swamped the generators.
Our point is simply that the two disasters that occurred were each unique and not symptomatic of systemic weaknesses that apply to other or all nuclear power plants in the US.
So, let’s think about this. In some 60 years of civilian nuclear power plants being in operation, there have been only two accidents that involved serious amounts of radiation being released.
Now, remember that one of those two accidents could not occur in the US due to different reactor design, and the other is very unlikely. But let’s still consider the Fukushima event as relevant, because maybe there are other unexpected vulnerabilities hidden within US reactor designs. So, in approximately 15,000 reactor years of operation, there has been only one significant and arguably relevant accident.
People feel perfectly safe living next to a volcano that erupts maybe once every 15,000 or so years. You should feel similarly safe having a nuclear power plant in your back yard.
Oh yes – the number of radiation deaths from the accident at Fukushima? Zero.
Extending the Analysis
As of May 2013, there are 436 nuclear reactors operating within 127 power plants around the world, and another 70 reactors under construction. Within the US, there are 104 reactors operating within 65 power plants.
There are also tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, none of which have ever accidentally exploded all by itself.
There are also many hundreds of other nuclear reactors. You might live close to one without even realizing it – some universities have nuclear reactors on campus for teaching and research. Military and research facilities also have nuclear reactors.
Then there are nuclear powered submarines and surface vessels – perhaps 200 or more in total. And – oh yes – don’t forget other nuclear power sources, even if not involving critical reactors – that are located in many other places, below the earth, on the earth, and above the earth in satellites.
Consider all these things, and then contrast the two significant nuclear accidents we’ve seen, neither of which directly exposes any similar vulnerability in US reactors.
Bottom line – there are more nuclear reactors ‘out there’ than you’d think, and fewer nuclear accidents than ‘conventional wisdom’ seems to perceive. Nuclear power plants are extremely safe. Many more people die from the pollution released by coal and oil-fired power plants than by radiation that is (not!) released by nuclear power plants.
Based on this analysis, you should have no concerns whatsoever in locating yourself close to a nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, we’ve not yet finished our analysis.
Two More Vulnerabilities?
There are however two types of vulnerability not yet considered.
The first of these is the potential for a deliberate radioactive release as the result of some form of sabotage or terrorist attack.
For sure, all nuclear power plants have security forces protecting them, but alas, equally for sure, we have to fear that a determined and clever terrorist attack may have an appreciable chance of gaining at least temporary access to the control circuitry and the physical reactor and related parts of the power plant.
We also have to concede that a well researched terrorist exploit of power plant vulnerabilities could result in grave harm being inflicted on the reactor, possibly to the point of a melt-down and an uncontained release of radioactive materials.
It is necessary to also assume that terrorists could infiltrate the actual power plant staff – if, as we’ve seen, an organization as security obsessed as the NSA can allow a contractor (Edward Snowden) with some obviously non-conformist and pro-privacy views to not only work for them but to walk off with large amounts of ultra-highly classified materials, and if we see muslims infiltrating the army before massacring soldiers (13 killed and 30 wounded by Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood), we have to accept that nuclear power plants are every bit as much at risk of infiltration and subtle sabotage, and maybe more so.
So it seems we have to accept that enemy terrorists can attack a power plant equipped with inside knowledge on security measures/capabilities and reactor vulnerabilities and how to exploit them. That’s a little bit scary, isn’t it.
There’s one more way of terrorists attacking nuclear power stations, too. By computer. We can only guess at what possible vulnerabilities lie within all the computerized control systems at a nuclear power station.
And – wait. We said there are two extra vulnerabilities. That was only the first, even though there were three parts to it. The second category of additional vulnerability is to wonder what would happen if an EMP attack disabled the control circuitry in a nuclear reactor.
We expect that nuclear power plants would have some degree of ‘hardening’ of their control circuits to make them semi-resistant to some types of EMP effects, but probably they would not be 100% invulnerable to all levels of EMP intensity.
We also understand that there are physical ‘fail safe’ design features, such as enabling the fuel rods to literally fall out of the reactor, causing the reactor to lose its criticality and stop functioning.
But we also then think about what happened at Fukushima – the fuel rods correctly fell out of the reactor in a SCRAM type action when the earthquake hit. The problem there was when the power to drive the cooling pumps to keep the fuel rods cool failed. That’s not a mechanical failsafe device – it requires electricity and electronics, which might be vulnerable to an EMP attack, and if this ended up with a similar type of Fukushima failure event, the result could be massively disastrous.
These are all hypothetical scenarios, and happily improbable. But are they impossible? No, alas, they are not.
You’ll have to decide how much importance to ascribe to such risks when making your own decisions about the risks associated with being close to nuclear power stations.
The popular perception of elevated risks associated with being located close to a nuclear power plant is generally wrong and hysterically overstated.
The well-known Three Mile Island accident was trivial in nature, no-one has died from radiation released at Fukushima (with the whole series of events at Fukushima not being due to anything going wrong with the reactors themselves), and the Chernobyl accident was directly related to a bad unsafe reactor design that is not used in the US.
As for other nuclear accidents, none have involved significant releases of radioactivity.
You’re more at risk of a nearby dormant volcano erupting than you are from dangerous levels of radioactivity being released from a nearby nuclear power plant.
But. There is one unknown vulnerability that can’t really be quantified. That is the risk of deliberate failure and intentional release of radioactive materials, caused by terrorist actions. We don’t know how likely that might be, but we have to accept it is not totally impossible, and while we also don’t know what extent of release could be caused by deliberate action, we also have to accept that it could be very high.
So – nuclear power plants. The good news – they have proven themselves to be very safe in terms of ‘normal’ risks. But, the bad news? They are potentially vulnerable to unusual risks and deliberate attack/sabotage.
Depending on other factors, it is probably wise to keep some distance from power stations accordingly. Depending on the wind patterns between you and the power station, ‘some distance’ could mean as much as 300 miles.