Fission Stories #146: Who’s Next?

, former director, Nuclear Safety Project | September 17, 2013, 6:00 am EDT
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The nuclear nightmare at Fukushima Daiichi is the most recent in a string of nuclear accidents. In April 1986, the Unit 4 reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine experienced an uncontrolled increase in power that caused two “rapid disassemblies” – nukespeak for explosions. In March 1979, the Unit 2 reactor at Three Mile Island in the United States experienced a partial meltdown of its reactor core due to inadequate cooling water flow. In October 1966, the Unit 1 reactor at the Fermi plant in the United States experienced a partial meldown when cooling water flow was partially blocked through some of its reactor core. And in October 1957, the No. 1 reactor at Windscale (now Sellafield) in the United Kingdom experienced fuel damage when its graphite moderator overheated and caught on fire.

Who’s next?

2013 began with 437 operational reactors around the world (four reactors in the United States have since been permanently shut down, but this analysis will continue to use the number from the beginning of the year.)

We’ll subtract from this total the number of reactors with inherently safe designs that render the chances of fuel damage negligible.

That leaves 437 reactors in the running.

We’ll then subtract the number of reactors governed by such strict regulations and aggressive regulators that the chances of an accident are negligible.

That leaves 437 reactors in the running

All things being equal, the more reactors you operate, the more likely you are to have the next nuclear nightmare. This puts the United States first in line, with France and Japan next.

But the United States has already had two meltdowns, and Japan had three meltdowns at Fukushima. Of course, this fact doesn’t provide immunity against another one because nuclear accidents aren’t like flu shots where a small inoculation with the virus builds up natural defenses. But, statistically, is France due, perhaps overdue, for a nuclear accident? Peut-être.

But just like purchasing a ticket for a lottery, operating a reactor provides a chance at the next nuclear accident. The Netherlands and Slovenia may be long shots, but they still can lose the nuclear lottery. Any operating reactor can experience the next nuclear nightmare.

That leaves 437 reactors in the running.

Our Takeaway

The 4 C’s are not just useful in grading diamond quality. They can determine a reactor’s spot in the nuclear lottery queue. Complacency, complacency, complacency, and even more complacency move a reactor towards the front of the line. Aggressively finding and fixing safety problems moves a reactor backward through the line.

The NRC’s job is to protect the American public by guarding against shortcuts. In other words, 3-peats can be cherished in sport and academic competitions, but not in nuclear accidents.


“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.

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  • dan allen

    Dave (or whoever can help),

    In hopes of getting better safety regs (cough), more reactors shut down, and their spent fuel secured in dry casks (at least), I’m trying to put together a short synopsis of what happens to the radioactive material in a nuclear reactor in each of the following 5 cases:

    1. operating with hot spent fuel (<5yr-old) in pool
    2. shut down with hot spent fuel (5yr old) in pool
    3. shut down with spent fuel in above-ground dry-cask storage
    5. shut down & all rad.material buried as in Texas dump

    I’m looking for back-of-the-envelope-type predictions on the fates of this rad.material on short (years), medium (decades) & long (centuries/millennia) time scales. Any help with this would be appreciated:

  • dan allen

    Sorry…typo above…Here are 5 cases:

    1. operating with hot spent fuel (<5yr-old) in pool
    2. shut down with hot spent fuel (<5yr old) in pool
    3. shut down with cold spent fuel (<5yr old) in pool
    3. shut down with spent fuel in above-ground dry-cask storage
    5. shut down & all rad.material buried as in Texas dump

  • dan allen

    …Ugh…also meant to add that active cooling is lost in 1st two cases with hot spent fuel. (sorry)

  • David Gaeddert

    Oops–Fermi 1 had partial flow blockage of *liquid sodium* coolant. Recently purchased from & reread “We Almost Lost Detroit”. ’75 book about ’66 event, worth re-reading for specific event and nuclear history up to time of writing.

  • Joyce Agresta

    Who’s next. Well my best guess is the USA will have the next Nuclear Reactors phased into “meltdown procedure“. (Not a industry word but something non industry people understand) After all there are pretty clear instructions of just how to achieve this through out the world as out lined by the ever popular Fukushima event.

    The odds are in our favor! Exceptional people as we the American’s are surely ours will be bigger and better than all the rest. Personally I think Three Mile Island was under rated. It was a significant accident. By the way the NRC ’s PR departments did a magnificent job promoting trust and safety after that. As dirty a job as it was they did do it very well indeed. But the tides have changed radioctive plume filled as they may be.

    Increasing the odds in favor of the USA as you point out our numbers we have the most reactors ! Very likely to happen are such things as Power and even emergency back up power outages. And natural disasters happen here too you know mother nature hasn‘t neglected us yet! The USA is hated by many capable enemies (triple factor). Perhaps a little less likely things like Earth approaching objects, buss infections, cyber attacks and all such silly things should too be factored in. Yep my monies on the USA. To be fair I really should give you odds at about 100 to 1.

    Anyhow The odds fall in our favor. So perhaps it’s time to start planning what to do after the big events. The gig is almost up. Most everyone has had a bit too much cesium and dummy dust already. The next decade will prove this from whats already happened. As we approach the beginning of the end of the nuclear industry minding the messes will be an even bigger job than was minding the reactors if it can be done at all.

  • Sean McKinnon

    Wow David, wow! So have you given up on at least trying to spin technical issues into “gotchas” and have you decided to just spew pure speculation now?

    By the way you forgot SL-1

    Considering the number of deaths compared to other reliable electrical generation methods I think I will HAPPILY take nuclear. How many people a year are displaced and killed by natural gas explosions? How much property destroyed? WHY DO THEY GET A FREE PASS?