Probability of contamination from severe nuclear reactor accidents is higher than expected

Western Europe has the worldwide highest risk of radioactive contamination caused by major reactor accidents

Catastrophic nuclear accidents such as the core meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima are more likely to happen than previously assumed. Based on the operating hours of all civil nuclear reactors and the number of nuclear meltdowns that have occurred, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia have calculated that such events may occur once every 10 to 20 years (based on the current number of reactors)—some 200 times more often than estimated in the past. The researchers also determined that, in the event of such a major accident, half of the radioactive caesium-137 would be spread over an area of more than 1,000 kilometers away from the nuclear reactor. Their results show that Western Europe is likely to be contaminated about once in 50 years by more than 40 kilobecquerel of caesium-137 per square meter. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency an area is defined as being contaminated with radiation from this amount onwards. In view of their findings, the researchers call for an in-depth analysis and reassessment of the risks associated with nuclear power plants.

The reactor accident in Fukushima has fueled the discussion about nuclear energy and triggered Germany's exit from their nuclear power program. It appears that the global risk of such a catastrophe is higher than previously thought, a result of a study carried out by a research team led by Jos Lelieveld, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and Professor at The Cyprus Institute: "After Fukushima, the prospect of such an incident occurring again came into question, and whether we can actually calculate the radioactive fallout using our atmospheric models." According to the results of the study, a nuclear meltdown in one of the reactors in operation worldwide is likely to occur once in 10 to 20 years. Currently, there are 440 nuclear reactors in operation, and 60 more are planned.

If a single nuclear meltdown were to occur in Western Europe, around 28 million people on average would be affected by contamination of more than 40 kilobecquerels per square meter. This figure is even higher in southern Asia, due to the dense populations. A major nuclear accident there would affect around 34 million people, while in the eastern USA and in East Asia this would be 14 to 21 million people.

"Germany's exit from the nuclear energy program will reduce the national risk of radioactive contamination. However, an even stronger reduction would result if Germany's neighbors were to switch off their reactors," says Prof. Jos Lelieveld. "Not only do we need an in-depth and public analysis of the actual risks of nuclear accidents. In light of our findings I believe an internationally coordinated phasing out of nuclear energy should also be considered ", adds the atmospheric chemist.

Source: Press release from Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany (;;;L=2)

Prof. Papanicolas Press Statement (06 Aug 2012) in Greek


Global risk of radioactive contamination

Global risk of radioactive contamination. The map shows the annual probability in percent of radioactive contamination by more than 40 kilobecquerels per square meter. In Western Europe the risk is around two percent per year. Picture: Daniel Kunkel, MPI for Chemsitry, 2011.

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