Fukushima wasn't the only nuclear accident waiting to happen. From Bulgaria to New York, here are five other nuclear power plants to keep an eye on.
When the U.S. Department of Energy ranked the most dangerous nuclear power plants in the former Soviet bloc in a classified 1995 report, two of the reactors in Bulgaria’s Kozloduy complex made the top 10. The risks posed by the plant’s aging Soviet technology were compounded by Bulgaria’s somewhat desperate circumstances: “Rolling blackouts, mostly during winter months, have plagued Bulgaria since 1984,” the report authors wrote. “Often, for every three hours with electricity there is one hour without. This power shortage has resulted in severe demand-side pressure to operate Kozloduy whatever the risk.”
The two iffiest reactors were shut down in 2004, and two of the remaining four were scheduled to be mothballed as a condition of Bulgaria’s entrance into the European Union — much to the discontent of Bulgarians. (Lithuania, whose Soviet-era reactors were also on the Energy Department’s danger list, had to make similar concessions.) President Georgi Parvanov called for the Europeans to reconsider after the Russia-Ukraine natural gas dispute of early 2009 cut off Bulgaria’s gas imports in the depth of winter, but to no avail. So instead of reopening the old reactors, Bulgaria is building newer — and ostensibly safer — ones at the facility with the help of Russian national atomic energy firm Rosatom; groundbreaking on the first is scheduled for September, and there are no post-Fukushima plans to reconsider construction of the plant.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
Turkey’s position above the North Anatolian fault makes it one of the most seismically active countries in the world — it has had 14 earthquakes with death tolls above 1,000 people in the past century. Not surprisingly, many Turks have therefore been wary of embracing nuclear power. A plan by a Russian energy consortium to build a plant in Akkuyu, near the Mediterranean coastal port of Mersin, was shelved in 2000 following a public outcry. Another proposed Russian-built plant at that site, plus a second on the Black Sea coast, were scuttled in 2009, this time over concerns about Turkey’s increasing energy dependency on Russia.
But it seems that the fourth time’s a charm: As part of a wide-ranging energy deal last year, Turkey and Russia inked a deal for a subsidiary of Rosatom to build a plant in Akkuyu. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reaffirmed their enthusiasm for the project, despite long-running local protests and the fact that, as a Turkish energy expert told the New York Times last year, the reactor model tentatively slated for use in the project hasn’t been approved by European authorities.
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Armenia’s flagship nuclear plant, which supplies 40 percent of the country’s power, is getting on in years. Situated not far from the 1.1 million inhabitants of Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan, it features a 1980-built reactor model of midcentury Soviet design — the same used at Bulgaria’s Kozloduy facility — that lacks some crucial safety features found in modern nuclear plants; the European Union has described Metsamor as the “oldest and least reliable” of the 66 such reactors in existence.
Metsamor was shut down in 1989 over safety concerns following an earthquake, and then reopened in the mid-1990s. Its safety has been a bone of contention between European and American authorities, who give Armenia aid money and are concerned about the plant’s viability, and Armenian leaders, who insist the plant is perfectly fine. Metsamor has been slated for closure for years, but officials say that construction delays and financing issues with its replacement — a newer, safer Russian model — mean that probably won’t happen until 2017.
Country: United States
Plant: Indian Point
In August, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission calculated the odds of the United States’ 104 nuclear power plants being critically damaged by an earthquake. The riskiest? The No. 3 reactor at the Indian Point plant in New York’s Westchester County, just 24 miles outside Manhattan. While other plants — most notably California’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant and San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station — stand a far better chance of a good shake, they were built to withstand it. Indian Point wasn’t.
The odds of the No. 3 reactor’s core being damaged by an earthquake in any given year, MSNBC reports, are 1 in 10,000, about seven times the national average. (By comparison, an American’s annual chance of dying in a car accident is about 1 in 6,600.) Those odds aren’t long enough for New York politicians, who are a little more squeamish about this kind of thing than their counterparts in Yerevan and Sofia. “I’ve had concerns about Indian Point for a long time,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week. “I understand the power and the benefit. I also understand the risk. … But this is new information that we’re going to pursue.”
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In 1999, a mishap during a routine inspection of a reactor at the Shika Nuclear Power Plant, in a town of about 15,000 people in Japan’s Ishikawa prefecture, exposed the plant to the risk of an uncontrolled chain reaction for 15 minutes. Nothing happened, but as they say, the coverup was worse than the crime: Plant managers hid records of the incident until 2007, when the Japanese government conducted a wholesale review of the country’s nuclear power industry, discovered what had happened, and ordered Shika to be temporarily shut down.
It was the second shutdown at the plant in as many years: In 2006, a court had ordered the plant shuttered after locals sued over concerns that Shika’s construction wouldn’t withstand earthquakes of a magnitude that could reasonably be expected in the area — only to be overruled by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
The problems at Shika are part of a broader pattern of weak safety oversight in the Japanese nuclear industry that has come sharply into focus since the Fukushima disaster began. As one Japanese seismologist told the Guardian on March 12, most first-generation Japanese nuclear plants were built in an era of relatively low earthquake activity. Despite earthquake-related breakdowns at several plants in the mid-2000s, utility companies and nuclear regulators failed to grasp the potential catastrophes waiting beneath their feet.
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