Analysis & Opinions - Slate

Nuclear Inertia

| April 26, 2011

How do nuclear accidents affect nuclear power-plant construction? I built a giant database to find out.

Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of the explosion at Chernobyl. Meanwhile, the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has begun to stabilize, if only slightly. The horror stories from Chernobyl set the nuclear industry back countless years, with many countries canceling or stalling previous plans to build nuclear reactors. How will the disaster in Japan affect global reliance on nuclear energy?

For the past two years, I've been building a data set that can help answer this question. It contains the location and date of every nuclear power plant constructed in every country in the world between 1965 and 2000—based on records maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency—and every significant nuclear accident during that time. I also collected country-level statistics on other factors that are thought to influence nuclear-power development: economic welfare, energy security, and energy production capacity, for example.

The nearly 75 nuclear accidents in the database include widely remembered disasters, such as Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, but also less-known incidents, such as the reactor meltdown in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1983 and an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction in Tokaimura, Japan, in 1999 that killed two people.

Japanese authorities recently rated Fukushima at the highest possible severity level (Level 7), a designation shared only by Chernobyl. (TMI was classified as Level 5.) Given that the last accident of this magnitude crippled the nuclear industry, it may be tempting to conclude that the crisis in Japan will substantially curtail global nuclear power development. According to my database, however, it seems this judgment may be premature....

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For Academic Citation: Fuhrmann, Matthew.“Nuclear Inertia.” Slate, April 26, 2011.

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