Fission Stories #146: Who’s Next?

September 17, 2013 | 6:00 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

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.