Chernobyl 25 years later: Do major nuclear accidents stop countries from building new nuclear reactors?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
April 26 2011 7:00 AM

Nuclear Inertia

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

A nuclear plant under construction. Click image to expand.
A nuclear plant under construction

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.

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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.

Nuclear-reactor construction is dominated by inertia. Harvesting nuclear energy is incredibly expensive at first, but much cheaper once the infrastructure is in place. Nevertheless, countries with a lot of money invested in nuclear energy have been surprisingly reluctant to give it up—even after major nuclear accidents. States that were not heavily invested, however, have often been quick to cancel their nuclear plans after accidents in other countries.

My analyses confirmed the conventional wisdom that TMI and Chernobyl stymied the global nuclear industry. A simple comparison between construction rates in the pre- and post-Chernobyl eras indicates that states were about 75 percent less likely to build reactors following the Soviet accident.

But Chernobyl and TMI aside, nuclear accidents generally have not deterred countries from building additional plants—even when the accidents happen within their borders. India, for example, began construction on four new reactors following the release of helium and heavy water at the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station in February 1995. *

Countries with nuclear power plants under construction prior to Three Mile Island continued to build reactors at a slower, though still steady pace—at least one new plant per country every seven years, on average, over the next two decades. In these countries—a group that includes Czechoslovakia, France, Pakistan, and South Korea—the accidents at Chernobyl and TMI raised concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants, but these fears were rarely sufficient to derail entrenched national interests.

Countries that hadn't already built a nuclear reactor, on the other hand, were about 35 percent more likely than all other countries to halt existing nuclear-construction plans (like those held by Egypt, Indonesia, and Vietnam). Twenty-seven countries built their first plant before that 1979 disaster. Only two countries—China and Romania—began construction on their first power plant during the next 20 years. The outliers had one thing in common: They were both nondemocratic countries, making them relatively insulated from the negative public reactions that inevitably ensue from nuclear accidents.

Proximity to these accidents was less important than one might expect—countries within 400 miles of the Soviet Union were not significantly more likely than others to curtail their nuclear plans after Chernobyl. There's even evidence that Chernobyl had a smaller effect on reactor construction in neighboring countries than non-neighboring ones.

If we apply these historical trends to the current nuclear situation, what do we find?

The nuclear industry began to tout a "global nuclear renaissance" in the 2000s, in light of the belief that nuclear power could be a partial solution to climate change. According to one study, 81 countries were exploring the nuclear energy option by 2009. But few of these countries were actually building reactors.

Most of the real nuclear expansion took place in existing nuclear energy states. Strikingly, more than 98 percent (60 of 61) of the nuclear power plants that were under construction at the time of the Fukushima disaster were being built in states that already had at least one reactor. (Iran's Bushehr plant is the one exception.) And nearly 50 percent of these plants were being built in a single country—China. Collectively, just four countries—China, India, Russia, and South Korea—accounted for more than three-quarters of the nuclear expansion that was taking place as of early 2011.

Fukushima's greatest effect on nuclear construction will probably come in countries that have toyed with the idea of nuclear power—notably Bangladesh, Egypt, Thailand, Turkey, the UAE, and Vietnam—but not yet built reactors. Most probably, these countries will build fewer nuclear power plants than they would have in a Fukushima disaster-less world. The cases of China and Romania show, however, that it would not be unprecedented for a new nuclear energy state to emerge in the wake of a major accident, especially if that country happens to be nondemocratic.

My forecasts assume that the response to the Fukushima disaster will conform to historical trends. The Japanese catastrophe is a nightmare scenario for the nuclear industry. It occurred in a democratic country with a highly developed civilian nuclear program and—unlike the Chernobyl plant—the Fukushima reactors were based on American designs that were widely believed to be safe. Together, these factors might be enough to overcome the prevailing nuclear inertia.

Correction, April 26, 2011: Originally this article mistakenly stated that an accident at the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station released radioactive helium. The helium was not radioactive, though the accident did release heavy water. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Matthew Fuhrmann is a Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.