Nuclear and radiation accidents and incidents

Following the 2011 Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster, authorities shut down the nation's 54 nuclear power plants. As of 2013, the Fukushima site remains highly radioactive, with some 160,000 evacuees still living in temporary housing, and some land will be unfarmable for centuries. The difficult cleanup job will take 40 or more years, and cost tens of billions of dollars.[1][2]
Pathways from airborne radioactive contamination to human
The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, a Japanese nuclear plant with seven units, the largest single nuclear power station in the world, was completely shut down for 21 months following an earthquake in 2007.[3]

A nuclear and radiation accident is defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as "an event that has led to significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility." Examples include lethal effects to individuals, large radioactivity release to the environment, or reactor core melt."[4] The prime example of a "major nuclear accident" is one in which a reactor core is damaged and significant amounts of radioactivity are released, such as in the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.[5]

The impact of nuclear accidents has been a topic of debate practically since the first nuclear reactors were constructed in 1954. It has also been a key factor in public concern about nuclear facilities.[6] Some technical measures to reduce the risk of accidents or to minimize the amount of radioactivity released to the environment have been adopted. Despite the use of such measures, human error remains, and "there have been many accidents with varying impacts as well near misses and incidents".[6][7] As of 2014, there have been more than 100 serious nuclear accidents and incidents from the use of nuclear power. Fifty-seven accidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster, and about 60% of all nuclear-related accidents have occurred in the USA.[8] Serious nuclear power plant accidents include the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), Chernobyl disaster (1986), Three Mile Island accident (1979), and the SL-1 accident (1961).[9] Nuclear power accidents can involve loss of life and very large monetary costs for remediation work.[10]

Nuclear-powered submarine core meltdown and other mishaps include the K-19 (1961), K-11 (1965), K-27 (1968), K-140 (1968), K-429 (1970), K-222 (1980), and K-431 (1985).[9][11][12] Serious radiation accidents include the Kyshtym disaster, Windscale fire, radiotherapy accident in Costa Rica,[13] radiotherapy accident in Zaragoza,[14] radiation accident in Morocco,[15] Goiania accident,[16] radiation accident in Mexico City, radiotherapy unit accident in Thailand,[17] and the Mayapuri radiological accident in India.[17]

The IAEA maintains a website reporting recent accidents.[18]

Nuclear power plant accidents

The abandoned city of Prypiat, Ukraine, following the Chernobyl disaster. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is in the background.

One of the worst nuclear accidents to date was the Chernobyl disaster which occurred in 1986 in Ukraine. The accident killed 31 people directly and damaged approximately $7 billion of property. A study published in 2005 estimates that there will eventually be up to 4,000 additional cancer deaths related to the accident among those exposed to significant radiation levels.[19] Radioactive fallout from the accident was concentrated in areas of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Approximately 350,000 people were forcibly resettled away from these areas soon after the accident.[19]

Benjamin K. Sovacool has reported that worldwide there have been 99 accidents at nuclear power plants from 1952 to 2009 (defined as incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or more than US$50,000 of property damage, the amount the US federal government uses to define major energy accidents that must be reported), totaling US$20.5 billion in property damages.[8] Fifty-seven accidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster, and almost two-thirds (56 out of 99) of all nuclear-related accidents have occurred in the US. There have been comparatively few fatalities associated with nuclear power plant accidents.[8]

Nuclear power plant accidents and incidents
with multiple fatalities and/or more than US$100 million in property damage, 1952-2011
Date Location of accident Description of accident or incident Dead Cost
2006 )
September 29, 1957 Mayak, Kyshtym, Russia The Kyshtym disaster was a radiation contamination incident that occurred at Mayak, a Nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the Soviet Union. 6
July 26, 1957 Simi Valley, California, United States Partial core meltdown at Santa Susana Field Laboratory’s Sodium Reactor Experiment. 0 32
October 10, 1957 Sellafield, Cumberland, United Kingdom A fire at the British atomic bomb project destroyed the core and released an estimated 740 terabecquerels of iodine-131 into the environment. A rudimentary smoke filter constructed over the main outlet chimney successfully prevented a far worse radiation leak and ensured minimal damage. 0 5
January 3, 1961 Idaho Falls, Idaho, United States Explosion at SL-1 prototype at the National Reactor Testing Station. All 3 operators were killed when a control rod was removed too far. 3 22 4
October 5, 1966 Frenchtown Charter Township, Michigan, United States Partial core meltdown of the Fermi 1 Reactor at the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station. No radiation leakage into the environment. 0 132[22]
January 21, 1969 Lucens reactor, Vaud, Switzerland On January 21, 1969, it suffered a loss-of-coolant accident, leading to a partial core meltdown and massive radioactive contamination of the cavern, which was then sealed. 0 5
1975 Sosnovyi Bor, Leningrad Oblast, Russia There was reportedly a partial nuclear meltdown in Leningrad nuclear power plant reactor unit 1.
December 7, 1975 Greifswald, East Germany Electrical error causes fire in the main trough that destroys control lines and five main coolant pumps 0 443 3
January 5, 1976 Jaslovské Bohunice, Czechoslovakia Malfunction during fuel replacement. Fuel rod ejected from reactor into the reactor hall by coolant (CO2).[23] 2 4
February 22, 1977 Jaslovské Bohunice, Czechoslovakia Severe corrosion of reactor and release of radioactivity into the plant area, necessitating total decommission 0 1,700 4
March 28, 1979 Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, United States Loss of coolant and partial core meltdown due to operator errors. There is a small release of radioactive gases. See also Three Mile Island accident health effects. 0 2,400 5
September 15, 1984 Athens, Alabama, United States Safety violations, operator error, and design problems force a six-year outage at Browns Ferry Unit 2. 0 110
March 9, 1985 Athens, Alabama, United States Instrumentation systems malfunction during startup, which led to suspension of operations at all three Browns Ferry Units 0 1,830
April 11, 1986 Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States Recurring equipment problems force emergency shutdown of Boston Edison’s Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant 0 1,001
April 26, 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Ukrainian SSR Overheating, steam explosion, fire, and meltdown, necessitating the evacuation of 300,000 people from Chernobyl and dispersing radioactive material across Europe (see Effects of the Chernobyl disaster) 30 direct, 19 not entirely related and 15 minors due to thyroid cancer, as of 2008.[24] 6,700 7
May 4, 1986 Hamm-Uentrop, West Germany Experimental THTR-300 reactor releases small amounts of fission products (0.1 GBq Co-60, Cs-137, Pa-233) to surrounding area 0 267
March 31, 1987 Delta, Pennsylvania, United States Peach Bottom units 2 and 3 shutdown due to cooling malfunctions and unexplained equipment problems 0 400
December 19, 1987 Lycoming, New York, United States Malfunctions force Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation to shut down Nine Mile Point Unit 1 0 150
March 17, 1989 Lusby, Maryland, United States Inspections at Calvert Cliff Units 1 and 2 reveal cracks at pressurized heater sleeves, forcing extended shutdowns 0 120
March 1992 Sosnovyi Bor, Leningrad Oblast, Russia An accident at the Sosnovy Bor nuclear plant leaked radioactive gases and iodine into the air through a ruptured fuel channel.
February 20, 1996 Waterford, Connecticut, United States Leaking valve forces shutdown Millstone Nuclear Power Plant Units 1 and 2, multiple equipment failures found 0 254
September 2, 1996 Crystal River, Florida, United States Balance-of-plant equipment malfunction forces shutdown and extensive repairs at Crystal River Unit 3 0 384
September 30, 1999 Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan Tokaimura nuclear accident killed two workers, and exposed one more to radiation levels above permissible limits. 2 54 4
February 16, 2002 Oak Harbor, Ohio, United States Severe corrosion of control rod forces 24-month outage of Davis-Besse reactor 0 143 3
August 9, 2004 Fukui Prefecture, Japan Steam explosion at Mihama Nuclear Power Plant kills 4 workers and injures 7 more 4 9 1
July 25, 2006 Forsmark, Sweden An electrical fault at Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant caused one reactor to be shut down 0 100 2
March 12, 2011 Fukushima, Japan A tsunami flooded and damaged the 5 active reactor plants drowning two workers. Loss of backup electrical power led to overheating, meltdowns, and evacuations.[25] One man died suddenly while carrying equipment during the clean-up.2+ 7[26]
12 September 2011 Marcoule, France One person was killed and four injured, one seriously, in a blast at the Marcoule Nuclear Site. The explosion took place in a furnace used to melt metallic waste. 1

Nuclear reactor attacks

The vulnerability of nuclear plants to deliberate attack is of concern in the area of nuclear safety and security. Nuclear power plants, civilian research reactors, certain naval fuel facilities, uranium enrichment plants, fuel fabrication plants, and even potentially uranium mines are vulnerable to attacks which could lead to widespread radioactive contamination. The attack threat is of several general types: commando-like ground-based attacks on equipment which if disabled could lead to a reactor core meltdown or widespread dispersal of radioactivity; and external attacks such as an aircraft crash into a reactor complex, or cyber attacks.[27]

The United States 9/11 Commission has said that nuclear power plants were potential targets originally considered for the September 11, 2001 attacks. If terrorist groups could sufficiently damage safety systems to cause a core meltdown at a nuclear power plant, and/or sufficiently damage spent fuel pools, such an attack could lead to widespread radioactive contamination. The Federation of American Scientists have said that if nuclear power use is to expand significantly, nuclear facilities will have to be made extremely safe from attacks that could release massive quantities of radioactivity into the community. New reactor designs have features of passive nuclear safety, which may help. In the United States, the NRC carries out "Force on Force" (FOF) exercises at all Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) sites at least once every three years.[27]

Nuclear reactors become preferred targets during military conflict and, over the past three decades, have been repeatedly attacked during military air strikes, occupations, invasions and campaigns.[28] Various acts of civil disobedience since 1980 by the peace group Plowshares have shown how nuclear weapons facilities can be penetrated, and the group's actions represent extraordinary breaches of security at nuclear weapons plants in the United States. The National Nuclear Security Administration has acknowledged the seriousness of the 2012 Plowshares action. Non-proliferation policy experts have questioned "the use of private contractors to provide security at facilities that manufacture and store the government's most dangerous military material".[29] Nuclear weapons materials on the black market are a global concern,[30][31] and there is concern about the possible detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon by a militant group in a major city, with significant loss of life and property.[32][33]

The number and sophistication of cyber attacks is on the rise. Stuxnet is a computer worm discovered in June 2010 that is believed to have been created by the United States and Israel to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. It switched off safety devices, causing centrifuges to spin out of control.[34] The computers of South Korea's nuclear plant operator (KHNP) were hacked in December 2014. The cyber attacks involved thousands of phishing emails containing malicious codes, and information was stolen.[35]

Radiation and other accidents and incidents

Dr. Joseph G. Hamilton was the primary researcher for the human plutonium experiments done at U.C. San Francisco from 1944 to 1947.[36] Hamilton wrote a memo in 1950 discouraging further human experiments because the AEC would be left open "to considerable criticism," since the experiments as proposed had "a little of the Buchenwald touch."[37]
One of four example estimates of the plutonium (Pu-239) plume from the 1957 fire at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Public protests and a combined Federal Bureau of Investigation and United States Environmental Protection Agency raid in 1989 stopped production at the plant.
Corroded and leaking 55-gallon drum, for storing radioactive waste at the Rocky Flats Plant, tipped on its side so the bottom is showing.
The Hanford site represents two-thirds of USA's high-level radioactive waste by volume. Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960.
On Feb. 14, 2014, at the WIPP, radioactive materials leaked from a damaged storage drum (see photo). Analysis of several accidents, by DOE, have shown lack of a "safety culture" at the facility.[38]
The 18,000 km2 expanse of the Semipalatinsk Test Site (indicated in red), which covers an area the size of Wales. The Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk from 1949 until 1989 with little regard for their effect on the local people or environment. The full impact of radiation exposure was hidden for many years by Soviet authorities and has only come to light since the test site closed in 1991.[39]
2007 ISO radioactivity danger symbol. The red background is intended to convey urgent danger, and the sign is intended to be used in places or on equipment where exceptionally intense radiation fields could be encountered or created through misuse or tampering. The intention is that a normal user will never see such a sign, however after partly dismantling the equipment the sign will be exposed warning that the person should stop work and leave the scene

Serious radiation and other accidents and incidents include:


Worldwide nuclear testing summary

Over 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted, in over a dozen different sites around the world. Red Russia/Soviet Union, blue France, light blue United States, violet Britain, black Israel, orange China, yellow India, brown Pakistan, green North Korea and light green (territories exposed to nuclear bombs)
The airburst nuclear explosion of July 1, 1946. Photo taken from a tower on Bikini Island, 3.5 miles (5.6 km) away.
Operation Crossroads Test Able, a 23-kiloton air-deployed nuclear weapon detonated on July 1, 1946. This bomb used, and consumed, the infamous Demon core that took the lives of two scientists in two separate criticality accidents.
Radioactive materials were accidentally released from the 1970 Baneberry Nuclear Test at the Nevada Test Site.

Between 16 July 1945 and 23 September 1992, the United States maintained a program of vigorous nuclear testing, with the exception of a moratorium between November 1958 and September 1961. By official count, a total of 1,054 nuclear tests and two nuclear attacks were conducted, with over 100 of them taking place at sites in the Pacific Ocean, over 900 of them at the Nevada Test Site, and ten on miscellaneous sites in the United States (Alaska, Colorado, Mississippi, and New Mexico).[85] Until November 1962, the vast majority of the U.S. tests were atmospheric (that is, above-ground); after the acceptance of the Partial Test Ban Treaty all testing was regulated underground, in order to prevent the dispersion of nuclear fallout.

The U.S. program of atmospheric nuclear testing exposed a number of the population to the hazards of fallout. Estimating exact numbers, and the exact consequences, of people exposed has been medically very difficult, with the exception of the high exposures of Marshall Islanders and Japanese fishers in the case of the Castle Bravo incident in 1954. A number of groups of U.S. citizens — especially farmers and inhabitants of cities downwind of the Nevada Test Site and U.S. military workers at various tests — have sued for compensation and recognition of their exposure, many successfully. The passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 allowed for a systematic filing of compensation claims in relation to testing as well as those employed at nuclear weapons facilities. As of June 2009 over $1.4 billion total has been given in compensation, with over $660 million going to "downwinders".[86]

Worldwide nuclear testing totals by country
Country Tests[Notes 1] Detonations[Notes 2] Peaceful
tests[Notes 3]
tests[Notes 4]
range, kt
yield, kt
Percentage by
test count
by yield
USA[87] 1032[Notes 5] 1127 27[Notes 6] 231 0 to 15,000 196,513[Notes 7] 48.8% 37.0%
USSR[88][89] 729[Notes 8] 982 156[Notes 9] 230 0 to 50,000 296,836 34.4% 54.0%
Great Britain[89] 88[Notes 10] 88 0 33 0 to 3,000 9,282 4.2% 1.8%
France[89] 212[Notes 11] 212 4[Notes 12] 52 0 to 2,600 13,567 10.0% 2.6%
China[89] 47[Notes 13] 47 0 22 0 to 4,000 24,409 2.2% 4.6%
India[89] 3 6 1[Notes 14] 0 0 to 43 68 0.14% 0.013%
Pakistan[89] 2 6[Notes 15] 0 0 1 to 32 51 0.095% 0.0096%
North Korea[89] 3 3 0 0 1 to 7 12 0.14% 0.0023%
Totals 2116 2471 188 542 0 to 50,000 540,738
This view of downtown Las Vegas shows a mushroom cloud in the background. Scenes such as this were typical during the 1950s. From 1951 to 1962 the government conducted 100 atmospheric tests at the nearby Nevada Test Site.
This handbill was distributed 16 days before the first nuclear device was detonated at the Nevada Test Site.
  1. Including salvo tests counted as a single test.
  2. Detonations include zero-yield detonations in safety tests and failed full yield tests, but not those in the accident category listed above.
  3. As declared so by the nation testing; some may have been dual use.
  4. Defined as these classes of tests: atmospheric, surface, barge, cratering, space, and underwater tests.
  5. Including five tests in which the devices were destroyed before detonation, and the combat bombs dropped on Japan in World War II
  6. Includes both application tests and research tests at NTS.
  7. When the yield reads "< 20 kt" this total assumes the yield was half the maximum, i.e., 10 kt.
  8. Includes the test left behind in Semipalatinsk and 13 apparent failures not in the official list.
  9. 124 applications tests and 32 research tests which helped design better PNE charges.
  10. Includes the 31 Vixen tests, which were safety tests.
  11. Including two possible safety tests in 1978, which don't appear on other lists.
  12. Four of the tests at In Ekker were the focus of attention by APEX (Application pacifique des expérimentations nucléaires). They even gave them different names, causing confusion.
  13. Includes one bomb destroyed before detonation by a failed parachute.
  14. Indira Gandhi, in her capacity as India's Minister of Atomic Energy at the time, declared the Smiling Buddha test to have been a test for the peaceful uses of atomic power.
  15. There is some uncertainty as to exactly how many bombs were exploded in each of Pakistan's tests. It could be as low as three altogether or as high as six.

Trafficking and thefts

The International Atomic Energy Agency says there is "a persistent problem with the illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials, thefts, losses and other unauthorized activities".[90] The IAEA Illicit Nuclear Trafficking Database notes 1,266 incidents reported by 99 countries over the last 12 years, including 18 incidents involving HEU or plutonium trafficking:[91][68][92]

Accident categories

For a list of many of the most important accidents see the International Atomic Energy Agency site.[100]

Nuclear meltdown

A nuclear meltdown is a severe nuclear reactor accident that results in reactor core damage from overheating. It has been defined as the accidental melting of the core of a nuclear reactor, and refers to the core's either complete or partial collapse.[101][102] A core melt accident occurs when the heat generated by a nuclear reactor exceeds the heat removed by the cooling systems to the point where at least one nuclear fuel element exceeds its melting point. This differs from a fuel element failure, which is not caused by high temperatures. A meltdown may be caused by a loss of coolant, loss of coolant pressure, or low coolant flow rate or be the result of a criticality excursion in which the reactor is operated at a power level that exceeds its design limits. Alternately, in a reactor plant such as the RBMK-1000, an external fire may endanger the core, leading to a meltdown.

Large-scale nuclear meltdowns at civilian nuclear power plants include:[11][42]

Other core meltdowns have occurred at:[42]

Eight Soviet Navy nuclear submarines have had nuclear core meltdowns or radiation incidents: K-19 (1961), K-11(1965), K-27 (1968), K-140 (1968), K-429 (1970), K-222 (1980), K-314 (1985), and K-431 (1985).[11]

Criticality accidents

A criticality accident (also sometimes referred to as an "excursion" or "power excursion") occurs when a nuclear chain reaction is accidentally allowed to occur in fissile material, such as enriched uranium or plutonium. The Chernobyl accident is an example of a criticality accident. This accident destroyed a reactor at the plant and left a large geographic area uninhabitable. In a smaller scale accident at Sarov a technician working with highly enriched uranium was irradiated while preparing an experiment involving a sphere of fissile material. The Sarov accident is interesting because the system remained critical for many days before it could be stopped, though safely located in a shielded experimental hall.[103] This is an example of a limited scope accident where only a few people can be harmed, while no release of radioactivity into the environment occurred. A criticality accident with limited off site release of both radiation (gamma and neutron) and a very small release of radioactivity occurred at Tokaimura in 1999 during the production of enriched uranium fuel.[104] Two workers died, a third was permanently injured, and 350 citizens were exposed to radiation.

Decay heat

Decay heat accidents are where the heat generated by the radioactive decay causes harm. In a large nuclear reactor, a loss of coolant accident can damage the core: for example, at Three Mile Island a recently shutdown (SCRAMed) PWR reactor was left for a length of time without cooling water. As a result, the nuclear fuel was damaged, and the core partially melted. The removal of the decay heat is a significant reactor safety concern, especially shortly after shutdown. Failure to remove decay heat may cause the reactor core temperature to rise to dangerous levels and has caused nuclear accidents. The heat removal is usually achieved through several redundant and diverse systems, and the heat is often dissipated to an 'ultimate heat sink' which has a large capacity and requires no active power, though this method is typically used after decay heat has reduced to a very small value. The main cause of release of radioactivity in the Three Mile Island accident was a pilot-operated relief valve on the primary loop which stuck in the open position. This caused the overflow tank into which it drained to rupture and release large amounts of radioactive cooling water into the containment building.

In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami caused a loss of power to two plants in Fukushima, Japan, crippling the reactor as decay heat caused 90% of the fuel rods in the core of the Daiichi Unit 3 reactor to become uncovered.[105] As of May 30, 2011, the removal of decay heat is still a cause for concern.


Transport accidents can cause a release of radioactivity resulting in contamination or shielding to be damaged resulting in direct irradiation. In Cochabamba a defective gamma radiography set was transported in a passenger bus as cargo. The gamma source was outside the shielding, and it irradiated some bus passengers.

In the United Kingdom, it was revealed in a court case that in March 2002 a radiotherapy source was transported from Leeds to Sellafield with defective shielding. The shielding had a gap on the underside. It is thought that no human has been seriously harmed by the escaping radiation.[106]

Equipment failure

Equipment failure is one possible type of accident. In Białystok, Poland, in 2001 the electronics associated with a particle accelerator used for the treatment of cancer suffered a malfunction.[107] This then led to the overexposure of at least one patient. While the initial failure was the simple failure of a semiconductor diode, it set in motion a series of events which led to a radiation injury.

A related cause of accidents is failure of control software, as in the cases involving the Therac-25 medical radiotherapy equipment: the elimination of a hardware safety interlock in a new design model exposed a previously undetected bug in the control software, which could have led to patients receiving massive overdoses under a specific set of conditions.

Human error

A sketch used by doctors to determine the amount of radiation to which each person had been exposed during the Slotin excursion
Part of a photo from an IAEA report on a radiation accident which occurred in Israel (Medical products treatment plant where the operator entered the irradiation room).[108]

Many of the major nuclear accidents have been directly attributable to operator or human error. This was obviously the case in the analysis of both the Chernobyl and TMI-2 accidents. At Chernobyl, a test procedure was being conducted prior to the accident. The leaders of the test permitted operators to disable and ignore key protection circuits and warnings that would have normally shut the reactor down. At TMI-2, operators permitted thousands of gallons of water to escape from the reactor plant before observing that the coolant pumps were behaving abnormally. The coolant pumps were thus turned off to protect the pumps, which in turn led to the destruction of the reactor itself as cooling was completely lost within the core.

A detailed investigation into SL-1 determined that one operator (perhaps inadvertently) manually pulled the 84-pound (38 kg) central control rod out about 26 inches rather than the maintenance procedure's intention of about 4 inches.[109]

An assessment conducted by the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA) in France concluded that no amount of technical innovation can eliminate the risk of human-induced errors associated with the operation of nuclear power plants. Two types of mistakes were deemed most serious: errors committed during field operations, such as maintenance and testing, that can cause an accident; and human errors made during small accidents that cascade to complete failure.[8]

In 1946 Canadian Manhattan Project physicist Louis Slotin performed a risky experiment known as "tickling the dragon's tail"[110] which involved two hemispheres of neutron-reflective beryllium being brought together around a plutonium core to bring it to criticality. Against operating procedures, the hemispheres were separated only by a screwdriver. The screwdriver slipped and set off a chain reaction criticality accident filling the room with harmful radiation and a flash of blue light (caused by excited, ionized air particles returning to their unexcited states). Slotin reflexively separated the hemispheres in reaction to the heat flash and blue light, preventing further irradiation of several co-workers present in the room. However, Slotin absorbed a lethal dose of the radiation and died nine days later. The infamous plutonium mass used in the experiment was referred to as the demon core.

Lost source

Lost source accidents,[111][112] also referred to as orphan sources, are incidents in which a radioactive source is lost, stolen or abandoned. The source then might cause harm to humans. One case occurred at Yanango where a radiography source was lost, also at Samut Prakarn a phosphorus teletherapy source was lost[113] and at Gilan in Iran a radiography source harmed a welder.[114] The best known example of this type of event is the Goiânia accident in Brazil.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has provided guides for scrap metal collectors on what a sealed source might look like.[115][116] The scrap metal industry is the one where lost sources are most likely to be found.[117]


Comparing the historical safety record of civilian nuclear energy with other forms of electrical generation, Ball, Roberts, and Simpson, the IAEA, and the Paul Scherrer Institute found in separate studies that during the period from 1970 to 1992, there were just 39 on-the-job deaths of nuclear power plant workers worldwide, while during the same time period, there were 6,400 on-the-job deaths of coal power plant workers, 1,200 on-the-job deaths of natural gas power plant workers and members of the general public caused by natural gas power plants, and 4,000 deaths of members of the general public caused by hydroelectric power plants.[118][119][120] In particular, coal power plants are estimated to kill 24,000 Americans per year due to lung disease[121] as well as causing 40,000 heart attacks per year[122] in the United States. According to Scientific American, the average coal power plant emits 100 times more radiation per year than a comparatively sized nuclear power plant in the form of toxic coal waste known as fly ash.[123]

Journalist Stephanie Cooke says that it is not very useful to make accident comparisons just in terms of number of immediate deaths, as the way people's lives are disrupted is also relevant, as in the case of the 2011 Japanese nuclear accidents, where 80,000 residents were forced to evacuate from neighborhoods around the Fukushima plant:[124]

You have people in Japan right now that are facing either not returning to their homes forever, or if they do return to their homes, living in a contaminated area... And knowing that whatever food they eat, it might be contaminated and always living with this sort of shadow of fear over them that they will die early because of cancer... It doesn't just kill now, it kills later, and it could kill centuries later... I'm not a great fan of coal-burning. I don't think any of these great big massive plants that spew pollution into the air are good. But I don't think it's really helpful to make these comparisons just in terms of number of deaths.[125]

Physicist Amory Lovins has said: "Nuclear power is the only energy source where mishap or malice can destroy so much value or kill many faraway people; the only one whose materials, technologies, and skills can help make and hide nuclear weapons; the only proposed climate solution that substitutes proliferation, major accidents, and radioactive-waste dangers".[126]

In terms of energy accidents, hydroelectric plants were responsible for the most fatalities, but nuclear power plant accidents rank first in terms of their economic cost, accounting for 41 percent of all property damage. Oil and hydroelectric follow at around 25 percent each, followed by natural gas at 9 percent and coal at 2 percent.[19] Excluding Chernobyl and the Shimantan Dam, the three other most expensive accidents involved the Exxon Valdez oil spill (Alaska), the Prestige oil spill (Spain), and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (Pennsylvania).[19]

Nuclear safety

Main article: Nuclear safety

Nuclear safety covers the actions taken to prevent nuclear and radiation accidents or to limit their consequences. This covers nuclear power plants as well as all other nuclear facilities, the transportation of nuclear materials, and the use and storage of nuclear materials for medical, power, industry, and military uses.

The nuclear power industry has improved the safety and performance of reactors, and has proposed new safer (but generally untested) reactor designs but there is no guarantee that the reactors will be designed, built and operated correctly.[127] Mistakes do occur and the designers of reactors at Fukushima in Japan did not anticipate that a tsunami generated by an earthquake would disable the backup systems that were supposed to stabilize the reactor after the earthquake.[128][129] According to UBS AG, the Fukushima I nuclear accidents have cast doubt on whether even an advanced economy like Japan can master nuclear safety.[130] Catastrophic scenarios involving terrorist attacks are also conceivable.[127]

In his book, Normal accidents, Charles Perrow says that multiple and unexpected failures are built into society's complex and tightly-coupled nuclear reactor systems. Nuclear power plants cannot be operated without some major accidents. Such accidents are unavoidable and cannot be designed around.[131] An interdisciplinary team from MIT have estimated that given the expected growth of nuclear power from 2005 – 2055, at least four serious nuclear accidents would be expected in that period.[132][133] To date, there have been five serious accidents (core damage) in the world since 1970 (one at Three Mile Island in 1979; one at Chernobyl in 1986; and three at Fukushima-Daiichi in 2011), corresponding to the beginning of the operation of generation II reactors. This leads to on average one serious accident happening every eight years worldwide.[129]

In the 2003 book, Brittle Power, Amory Lovins talks about the need for a resilient, secure, energy system:

The foundation of a secure energy system is to need less energy in the first place, then to get it from sources that are inherently invulnerable because they're diverse, dispersed, renewable, and mainly local. They're secure not because they're American but because of their design. Any highly centralised energy system -- pipelines, nuclear plants, refineries -- invite devastating attack. But invulnerable alternatives don't, and can't, fail on a large scale.[134]

See also


  1. Richard Schiffman (12 March 2013). "Two years on, America hasn't learned lessons of Fukushima nuclear disaster". The Guardian.
  2. Martin Fackler (June 1, 2011). "Report Finds Japan Underestimated Tsunami Danger". New York Times.
  3. The European Parliament's Greens-EFA Group - The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2007 p. 23. Archived June 25, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. Staff, IAEA, AEN/NEA. International Nuclear and Radiological Events Scale Users' Manual, 2008 Edition (PDF). Vienna, Austria: International Atomic Energy Agency. p. 184. Archived from the original (PDF) on May 15, 2011. Retrieved 2010-07-26.
  5. Yablokov, Alexey V.; Nesterenko, Vassily B.; Nesterenko, Alexey; Sherman-Nevinger, consulting editor, Jannette D. (2009). Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. Boston, MA: Blackwell Publishing for the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. ISBN 978-1-57331-757-3. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  6. 1 2 M.V. Ramana. Nuclear Power: Economic, Safety, Health, and Environmental Issues of Near-Term Technologies, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2009, 34, p. 136.
  7. Matthew Wald (February 29, 2012). "The Nuclear Ups and Downs of 2011". New York Times.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Benjamin K. Sovacool. A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 40, No. 3, August 2010, pp. 393–400.
  9. 1 2 3 "The Worst Nuclear Disasters". 25 March 2009.
  10. Gralla, Fabienne, Abson, David J., and Muller, Anders, P. et al. "Nuclear accidents call for transidsciplinary energy research", Sustainability Science, January 2015.
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