The decision to class the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident at the same ‘Level Seven’ magnitude as Chernobyl demonstrates the need to revise the scale used to communicate the magnitude of nuclear accidents, according to a parliamentary report published in the UK today.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report says the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) left the public with a confusing picture of the real risks from the accident. This was partly because it was classed as the same magnitude as Chernobyl – despite there being “significantly lower levels” of radioactive material released into the atmosphere and no deaths directly attributable to the accident.
Committee chairman Andrew Miller said although tens of thousands died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, to date nobody has died, or received a life-threatening dose of radiation, from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident and no one is expected to.
He said: “The accident has made it clear that the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale is not up to the job.”
“The International Atomic Energy Agency should come up with a better and more accurate way of communicating the risks involved in any future nuclear accident.”
The report quotes a former science editor at ‘The Times’ newspaper who criticised the INES scale, saying it was “difficult” for reporters to convey the nuance of what was happening at Fukushima-Daiichi versus what had happened previously at Chernobyl, because the scale was not fit for purpose.
The committee said the IAEA should review INES, focusing on how to better represent orders of magnitude; make the scale comprehensible to non-technical audiences; and ensure the technical basis of the scale incorporates sufficient information about risk as well as hazard.
The report notes that the scale’s inadequacies have been recognised by the IAEA “as part of its action plan post-Fukushima to review that event”.
The IAEA said it did not want to comment specifically on the UK report, but it did point out that in June 2011, director-general Yukiya Amano addressed a nuclear safety conference at which he said the INES rating proved to be an “ineffective communication tool” in the case of the Fukushima-Daiichi accident. He said: “I am asking the INES advisory committee to consider ways in which the scale might be improved.”
On 18 June 2012, Denis Flory, IAEA deputy director-general for safety and security, told a meeting the agency was reviewing the use of INES because it did not play its role as a communications tool during the Fukushima nuclear accident. Mr Flory said it should be reviewed and improved to make it “more effective especially with regard to applying the methodology for severe, complex and evolving event”.
The report also says the UK government’s position as an advocate of nuclear power made it difficult for the public to trust it as an impartial source of information on the technology.
The committee said independent regulators should take a bigger role in communicating the risks of nuclear power and other new energy technologies such as “fracking” for shale gas or capturing and storing carbon from power stations so that people could trust what they were being told.
Public distrust of governments as providers of risk information is evident across Europe, the report says.
Events are classified on the INES at seven levels: Levels 1-3 are called “incidents” and Levels 4-7 are “accidents”. Events without safety significance are called “deviations” and are classified Below Scale/Level 0. The scale is designed so that the severity of an event is about 10 times greater for each increase in level on the scale, the report says.
The report is online:
The IAEA’s INES Fact Sheet is online: www.iaea.org/Publications/Factsheets/English/ines.pdf<http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Factsheets/English/ines.pdf>