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Global risk of radioactive fallout after major nuclear reactor accidents

by J. Lelieveld, D. Kunkel, M. G. Lawrence
Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics ()
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Major reactor accidents of nuclear power plants are rare, yet the consequences are catastrophic. But what is meant by rare? And what can be learned from the Cher- nobyl and Fukushima incidents? Here we assess the cumu- lative, global risk of exposure to radioactivity due to atmo- spheric dispersion of gases and particles following severe nuclear accidents (the most severe ones on the International Nuclear Event Scale, INES 7), using particulate 137Cs and gaseous 131I as proxies for the fallout. Our results indicate that previously the occurrence of INES 7 major accidents and the risks of radioactive contamination have been under- estimated. Using a global model of the atmosphere we com- pute that on average, in the event of a major reactor accident of any nuclear power plant worldwide, more than 90% of emitted 137Cs would be transported beyond 50km and about 50% beyond 1000km distance before being deposited. This corroborates that such accidents have large-scale and trans- boundary impacts. Although the emission strengths and at- mospheric removal processes of 137Cs and 131I are quite dif- ferent, the radioactive contamination patterns over land and the human exposure due to deposition are computed to be similar. High human exposure risks occur around reactors in densely populated regions, notably inWest Europe and South Asia, where a major reactor accident can subject around 30 million people to radioactive contamination. The recent deci- sion by Germany to phase out its nuclear reactors will reduce the national risk, though a large risk will still remain from the reactors in neighbouring countries

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