6 unforgettable nuclear disasters that terrified the world

iStock_000016322937SmallAs our recent worst industrial fires post showed, when occupational disasters strike, they can be devastating. However, when those disasters involve nuclear power, the effects can be catastrophic. Below we have listed some of the worst peace-time nuclear incidents the world has known…

1. Chernobyl Disaster, 1986

Soviet Authorities, it has been downloaded from http://new.chnpp.gov.ua/eng/photorama.php?lng=en, access 23 June 2008, original filename is Helicopt03_05_86_1.jpg (55 Kb), access 23 June 2008 via Wikapedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chernobyl_burning-aerial_view_of_core.jpg)
Aerial view of the damaged core on 3 May 1986

When people mention nuclear disasters, this is normally the first name on their lips – and for good reason. When a fire

and explosion occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine on April 26, 1986, large quantities of radioactive particles were released into the atmosphere, spreading over much of the western USSR and Europe. While only 31 people died in the initial accident, the estimate of the long-term cost to human life in the form of cancers and other related diseases is around 4,000. The financial cost of the incident and the ongoing containment is difficult to calculate, but it has been suggested to be in excess of US $250billion.

2. Kyshtym, 1957

Another accident within the former USSR, though this one is slightly less well known, despite it being the third worst nuclear disaster of all time. When an explosion occurred at the Mayak plutonium production site on September 29, 1957, a plume of radioactive contamination was released over hundreds of kilometres. While no one was killed in the immediate aftermath of the accident, the disaster exposed 22 villages to radiation from the disaster, with a total population of around 10,000 being evacuated. Due to the secretive nature of the USSR at the time, it is impossible to accurately estimate the cost of the incident, either in human, or financial terms.

3. Goiânia Accident, 1987

When two opportunistic scrap metal thieves broke into an abandoned Brazilian hospital in 1987, they had no way of knowing that they were about to trigger one of the world’s worst nuclear contamination incidents. After scavenging parts from old hospital machinery, the thieves came across a teletherapy radiation capsule. Unaware of the danger the material possessed, they set about dismantling the unit with a screwdriver and sharing the glowing blue material amongst friends and family before selling the metal on. It wasn’t until local people began to fall ill that the source of radiation was discovered – at which point 249 people were found to have received significant radioactive contamination. Four people died as a direct result of the incident, and several houses were demolished in the aftermath.

4. Windscale Fire, 1957

1957 was a bad year for nuclear disasters, with this infamous incident in Cumbria being ranked the worst radioactive incident on British soil. When a nuclear reactor caught fire on October 10, 1957, a significant amount of radioactive material was released into the atmosphere, spreading across the UK. While no one was injured directly by the incident, it has since been estimated that the disaster was responsible for an additional 240 cancer deaths. The Windscale site has since been decontaminated and is now owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

John G. Kemeny et al - Report of The President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island: The Need for Change, 1979
A clean-up crew working to remove radioactive contamination at Three Mile Island.

5. Three Mile Island Accident, 1979

On March 27, 1979, a mechanical failure at a commercial nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, United States, triggered a partial meltdown, resulting in the worst commercial nuclear incident in US history. While no human lives were lost as a direct result of the accident, the clean up cost was phenomenal, taking 14 years at a cost of $1billion. Furthermore, the incident kick-started a wave of negative publicity towards nuclear power in the US, with thousands of people attending anti-nuclear marches and rallies across the country in the wake of the disaster.

6. Fukushima Daiichi Disaster, 2011

The last and most recent disaster on our list is also the most serious since Chernobyl. When a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, was hit by a massive tsunami on March 11, 2011, three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors went into meltdown. The next day the plant began to release significant amounts of radioactive material. While again no fatalities were recorded as a direct result of the disaster (though more than 10,000 people lost their lives in the tsunami), more than 300,000 people were evacuated from their homes. The clean up operation since has proved costly and is still ongoing, with continued leaks of radioactive water hampering the efforts of the authorities.

The future…

Fortunately, nuclear incidents such as those listed above are incredibly rare events, thanks to ever increasing standards of safety and management, qualities honoured by the annual RoSPA Occupational Health and Safety Awards. Nevertheless, the above list serves as a potent reminder of the importance of maintaining these high standards, particularly within the nuclear industry.

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