According to a 2012 census 120 million people live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant.
How bad is it to have a nuclear plant as a neighbor? The chances of a meltdown may not be quite as small as was once believed: After the 2011 disaster in Fukushima prompted some reevaluating, at least one study found that serious accidents at reactors may be 200 times more likely than past estimates led people to believe. Based on the current number of reactors in the world, a major disaster like Fukushima might happen once every 10 or 20 years.
The same year as Fukushima, five nuclear power plants in the U.S. lost primary power thanks to earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding. On this map, extra layers show where fault lines run and where earthquakes have happened in the past to give some sense of the risk. But natural disasters aren’t the only challenge.
There’s also the issue of age. Some nuclear power plants have been approved to keep running for 60 years even when they were only built for 40. Other plants have permission to run at higher power levels than what was specified in the original design. And then there’s the challenge of human error. Emergency shutdowns happen regularly; over the last decade, a power plant in southern Washington State has shut down 23 times.
If something happens to go wrong at a nuclear reactor, anyone living in a 10-mile radius of the plant may have to evacuate. This map also shows a 50-mile evacuation zone, the safe distance that the U.S. government recommended to Americans who were near Fukushima. Wind can also change how far a radioactive plume travels–in a similar map, the environmental group NRDC calculated where wind would have carried radiation if an accident had happened in the U.S. the same day it did in Japan.
While a solar flare alone might not be enough to cause problems on Earth’s surface, a powerful CME (coronal mass ejection ) is another story. In fact, massive CMEs have affected the Earth in the past. But we weren’t as advanced in electronics, nor did we depend upon them as heavily the last time a CME really smacked us around.
While you didn’t see it, feel it, or even read about it in the newspapers, Earth was almost knocked back to the Stone Age on July 23, 2012.
It wasn’t some crazed dictator with his finger on the thermonuclear button or a giant asteroid that came close to wiping out civilization as we know it, though — no, what nearly ended us was a massive solar storm. The Sun kicked out one of the largest solar flares and coronal mass ejections ever recorded. And it missed Earth by a whisker.
If the solar storm had hit Earth back in 2012, the total economic impact is estimated to be around $2 trillion, or 20 times the cost of Hurricane Katrina. It’s not just about money, though: It would take time to fix up the world’s power grid. You can’t just magically replace dozens of giant transformers and substations. There are only so many diesel generators to fill the gap. If a giant solar storm hit the Earth, large parts of society could be without power for months or years.
“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” says Daniel Baker, who led the research into the massive solar storm.
Even if nothing catastrophic happens, there’s also the chance that nuclear plants can have smaller leaks–the majority of reactors have leaked tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that can contaminate drinking water and, at high enough concentrations, cause cancer and genetic defects.
In some regions, it’s pretty hard to avoid living near one. And hey, at least they’re cleaner than a coal power plant–at least day-to-day–and they’re definitely much less of a threat to the climate. But if you have one nearby, maybe you should add a fallout plan to your disaster preparedness to-do list.