Global risk of radioactive fallout after nuclear reactor accidents
1Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, P.O. Box 3060, 55020 Mainz, Germany
2The Cyprus Institute, Nicosia, Cyprus
*now at: the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam, Germany
Abstract. Reactor core meltdowns of nuclear power plants are rare, yet the consequences are catastrophic. But what is meant by "rare"? And what can be learned from the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents? Here we assess the risk of exposure to radioactivity due to atmospheric dispersion of gases and particles following severe nuclear accidents, using particulate 137Cs and gaseous 131I as proxies for the fallout. It appears that previously the occurrence of major accidents and the risks of radioactive contamination have been underestimated. Using a global model of the atmosphere we compute that on average, in the event of a core melt of any nuclear power plant worldwide, more than 90% of emitted 137Cs would be transported beyond 50km and about 50% beyond 1000 km distance. This corroborates that such accidents have large-scale and trans-boundary impacts. Although the emission strengths and atmospheric removal processes of 137Cs and 131I are quite different, the radioactive contamination patterns over land and the human deposition exposure are computed to be similar. High human exposure risks occur around reactors in densely populated regions, notably in southern Asia where a core melt can subject 55 million people to radioactive contamination. The recent decision 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.