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BusinessWeek's False Impressions

Alongside this week's cover story, "The Next Big One," BusinessWeek ran a sidebar called "Sleepless Nights" that details the top 10 risks to America.

Take a look at the chart entry for a dirty bomb, which states that materials for a dirty bomb can be gathered from "power-plant wastes" and that such a threat would cause "immediate deaths in the hundreds [and] long-term cancer deaths in the thousands."

Then take a look at a fact sheet on NEI's Web site called "Used Fuel Secure at Nuclear Power Plants Could Not Be Used to Make a 'Dirty Bomb.'" In particular, this fact sheet notes:
The possibility of utilizing used nuclear fuel for a “dirty bomb” is fraught with practical and logistical obstacles that would render such a scenario essentially impossible. A “dirty bomb” is a bomb made of conventional explosives covered with radioactive material that would be used by terrorists to spread radiation. However, no nuclear reaction occurs. The most significant public health consequences would occur as a result of the explosion—not the radioactivity in the device.

The used fuel at nuclear power plants would be extremely difficult for an outsider to access. Moreover, it would also be extremely difficult to use.
You might also want to read the fact sheet titled "Steps for Public Safety Against a 'Dirty Bomb.'"

We also should point out the final chart entry, on the possibility of a radiation leak. BusinessWeek - relying on the Union of Concerned Scientists for data - states that "coolant loss at a nuclear power plant could send a radioactive cloud over nearby cities," causing "as many as 44,000 immediate deaths." In addition, the magazine claims, "upwards of 500,000 could eventually die from cancer."

Let's go back to the fact sheets. Nearly every one in the Safety and Security and the Radiation Control and Measurement sections will tell you the same thing:
In the unlikely event of a radiation release ... the likelihood of one fatality is less than one chance in 6,000 years—80 times lower than the NRC’s safety standard for nuclear plant operation.

The long-term cancer fatality risk is indistinguishable compared to cancer risks from other causes. The likelihood of one cancer-induced fatality is less than one chance in 3,000 years—1,000 times lower than the NRC safety standard.
The following fact sheets would have been particularly useful to BusinessWeek and the Union of Concerned Scientists as they constructed their chart:

- Nuclear Power Plant Security
- Public Health Risk Low in Unlikely Event of Terrorism at Nuclear Plant, EPRI Study Finds
- Emergency Preparedness Near Nuclear Power Plants
- Use of Potassium Iodide Secondary Measure in the Event of a Radioactive Release

UPDATE: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already responded to BusinessWeek (thanks to AtomicMatt for pointing this out). Pointing specifically to the recent report on the effects of the Chernobyl accident, the NRC's letter to the editor scathingly reprimands the magazine for sloppy data collection:

Business Week's "Sleepless Nights" chart with the Sept. 19 "Next Big One" article shows unsupportable, misinformed "projections" of the possible effects of a nuclear power plant accident. The numbers quoted in the chart have no basis in reality and do not reflect the most recent information about the effects of the 1986 nuclear power plant accident in Chernobyl, the worst the world has seen.

...The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's regulations and ongoing oversight of U.S. nuclear plants focus on preventing accidents and protecting the public if an accident were to occur. Your readers are best served by numbers based on fact and deliberate study, not wildly inaccurate projections meant to grab attention.
UPDATE: BusinessWeek published part of the NRC's letter in its Oct. 17 edition.

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Comments

Matthew66 said…
The NRC has already responded to the editor of Business Week on the matters raised in the article, see the
For the Record section of the NRC's website.

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