Nuclear Event Rating Scale Revamped

The International Nuclear Event Scale gives a numeric rating to put nuclear events into perspective. Level 0 refers to occurrences with no safety significance. (Image credit: IAEA)

A scale used to classify the severity of a nuclear accident is being expanded to include incidents related to the transport of radioactive materials.

The International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) works like the Richter scale for earthquakes. Government officials use a numeric scale to classify and report the severity of nuclear events to the world at large. The nuclear ratings are communicated to officials and others by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

More than 60 countries have agreed to report nuclear events and their ratings to the Atomic Energy Agency, most within 48 hours.

The INES is not yet well-known to experts, let alone the public. Cynthia Jones, a U.S. representative to the INES Advisory Committee and a senior technical advisor at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will illustrate how the scale is used and recent additions to it this week at an annual meeting of the Health Physics Society in Oregon.

The scale ranges from 1 to 7, as follows:

Rating 1—an anomaly Rating 2—an incident, such as when the regulatory limit for a radiation worker has been exceeded Rating 3—a serious incident Rating 4—an accident with mostly local consequences Rating 5—an accident with wider consequences Rating 6—a serious accident Rating 7—a major accident

The accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 would be classified as a 6 on this scale, while the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 would rank as a 7,  the highest rating.

The additions will cover any radiation sources and transport incidents, including those in which radioactive packages are lost or stolen.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.