Chernobyl Isn’t The Only Time There Has Been A Terrible Nuclear Disaster

July 22, 2019

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1968, a power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded and ignited one the of the worst nuclear accidents of all time. The nuclear disaster was caused by a botched experiment on a reactor in Unit 4, and it was intensified when countless safety measures were ignored. 

The immediate aftermath of Chernobyl claimed the lives of 31 people, but the real ramifications of the nuclear disaster would not be felt for years to come. The radiation released by the Chernobyl explosion was 400 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II – and residents in nearby towns, such as Pripyat, were not evacuated until a full 36 hours later. Due to the Soviet Union’s effort to keep it quiet, deadly radiation silently spread over Europe, slowly poisoning farmland and people alike. According to the World Health Organization, as many as 70,000 people were exposed to radiation levels that eventually caused serious health problems. 

Chernobyl will forever be cemented in our minds, but it isn’t the only nuclear disaster of its kind. Other nuclear accidents have happened all around the world. Each story is harrowing, and they serve as a devastating lessons on how to avoid such fallout in the future.

Fukushima Daiichi

IAEA Imagebank/CC BY-SA 2.0

On March 11, 2011, nearly 25 years after the Chernobyl disaster, another nuclear plant almost experienced a catastrophic meltdown.

The accident happened at the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant off the coast of Japan. The reaction was caused by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The natural disasters caused the reactors to reach levels over twice what the system was built to withstand, causing three separate meltdowns.

According to the World Health Organization, the nuclear disaster didn’t cause any immediate deaths or acute radiation poisoning (ARC).

Even though there weren’t any immediate health repercussions, residents in the nearby areas still had to deal with some fallout. Over 100,000 people were forcibly relocated from their homes. The crisis was eventually raised to a level 7, which is the highest possible level on nuclear accident. This officially made the Fukushima incident the only other nuclear disaster to earn the rating other than Chernobyl

Three Mile Island

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Leaked steam from this Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, nuclear plant proved to be deadly down the line.

The plant was built during the country’s energy boom and was lauded for its high-tech design and affordable infrastructure. On March 28, 1979, a pressure valve in a reactor failed to close. This caused cooling water, which was filled with radiation, to seep into nearby buildings. Operators in the control room failed to contain the crisis as contaminated steam began to leak out of the facility.

Driven by the need to cover up the accident, the plant downplayed the effects of the nuclear disaster.

However, within days, radiation spread over several counties. The effects were so bad that the Governor of Pennsylvania, Governor Richard Thornburgh, ordered pregnant women and children to vacate the area. To this day, there is still ongoing controversy over the exact amount of radiation levels that were released. Some scientists have said it caused increased cancer and infant mortality rates in the region.  Following the incident, Americans began to question the effects and locations of nuclear plants around the country. 

Windscale

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The Windscale Nuclear Plant was built in England during the 1940s to produce materials for the country’s first nuclear weapons program

On October 10, 1957, workers noticed rising temperatures in Unit 1 and found that the reactor’s core — containing roughly 11 tons of uranium — had caught fire. The fire continued to burn for three days as workers tried to put out the fire using carbon dioxide and eventually water. 

Even though the fire was extinguished, a radioactive cloud continued to spread across the U.K. and parts of Europe.

The accident is still regarded as “the worst in the west.” Luckily, no immediate evacuations were necessary, but it did affect the sale of milk in the area. The almost-nuclear disaster was officially caused by “an error of judgment,” according to an official report. Scientists estimate about 200 cases of cancer may be a direct result of the Windscale Fire. 

Kyshtym

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

After World War II ended, the Soviet Union continued to build weapons. They constructed dozens of nuclear fuel processing plants around the country.

A nuclear disaster occurred at a plant near the Russian town of Ozyorsk when a cooling system failed and caused radioactive waste to explode. The radiation spread around an area of about 9,000 square miles. Unfortunately, it was nearly a full week before residents in the nearby towns were evacuated.

Since the plant never “officially” existed, roughly 10,000 people were never given a reason for why they had to permanently relocate their homes.

There were also reports of locals suffering poisoning effects, such as skin sloughing off from exposure.  Following the accident, the Soviet Union created a nature preserve in the contaminated area and limited access to authorized individuals only. In 1990, the event was finally declassified and reports of the aftermath came to light. The incident happened at the Mayak facility, but is referred to as Kyshtym, a nearby town, since the plant was never located on any maps. 

SL-1

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The first deadly nuclear accident in the U.S. happened in 1961 in a small facility in Idaho called Stationary Low-Power Plant No. 1, or SL-1.

The accident occurred when a control rod was removed manually, causing a power surge so strong that the lid of the vessel flew over three meters into the air. The explosion created a large amount of radioactive steam that instantly killed two army specialists who were operating the plant. A third man died later from high levels of radiation in the building. 

The men were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

And according to cemetery records, their bodies contained such high levels of radiation that they are buried in lead coffins. The official record continues to recommend that “under no circumstances will the body be moved from this location without prior approval of the Atomic Energy Commission in consultation with this headquarters.”  

Fermi 1

NRC/Public Domain

Years before Three Mile Island, another nuclear accident sent waves across the nation.

Fermi 1 was a commercial power plant located near Monroe, Michigan, that was working with an “experimental breeder reactor” that could create more fuel than it consumed. However, this system, unlike water based reactors, used liquid sodium to circulate constantly and was much more volatile. In 1966, this almost caused a cataclysmic accident. 

The accident occurred when an unidentified metal object broke loose inside one of the reactor vessels and blocked the coolant from reaching the fuel.

At the time of the accident, alarms sounded and the reactor building shut down to block any contamination leaks. Luckily, there were no injuries or deaths related to the accident, but it did start a huge conversation across the  country about the potential danger of nuclear power plants. Many activist groups dubbed the event “the time we almost lost Detroit” and claimed the reaction had the potential to be on par with Chernobyl. Following the meltdown, the Fermi 1 plant was closed for four years. 

Hungarian Paks-2 Reactor

Cecilia, Lili & Krisztian from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia/Wikimedia Commons

On April 10th, 2003, Hungary experienced its first major nuclear accident.

Workers were in the midst of cleaning the Paks-2 reactor when tragedy nearly struck. Elements of the reactor were severely damaged at the Hungarian Paks-2 and began releasing radiation into the surrounding area. Staff was alerted when radiation monitors inside the reactor hall began to reach alarming levels. The area was evacuated immediately, and there were no casualties. 

The incident was originally labeled as a level 2 on the International Event Scale but was eventually brought up to a level 3, which is classified as a “serious incident.” 

The Brown Ferry Plant

Tennessee Valley Authority/Public Domain

In 2018, the U.S. experienced a nuclear event at the Brown Ferry Plant in Alabama.

According to reports, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission started investigating the plant after a high amount of radiation was discovered in water in an equipment pit. The radiation was detected as a diver was performing work in the pit. According to the NRC, the diver’s radiation exposure “did not exceed regulatory limits,” but the NRC was not willing to take any chances. 

Upon further investigation, the NRC discovered why the radiation levels spiked. 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s report stated that “a basket of used filters had been moved from the spent fuel pool into a position near the equipment wall and this was not communicated to the next shift.” The plant agreed to cooperate with the NRC to remedy the potentially disastrous situation.

The plant also assured the public that they were not in danger.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time the Brown Ferry plant had come under fire. Back in 2011, the NRC also had to get involved and labeled the plant as a “red finding,” which means it was one grade away from a full shutdown. The plant also experienced a fire in 1975, along with several other close-calls through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. 

The Lucens Reactor

The Lucens was a small nuclear reactor built in an underground cavern in Switzerland.

The plant was built in 1962 and was meant to be Switzerland’s crowning nuclear achievement. In 1969, however, the plant experienced a meltdown, and it was decommissioned. 

The accident occurred after a pressure tube exploded in the reactor cavity. Coolant started to leak, and the reactor had a partial meltdown. Inside the reactor, the levels of radiation were so high that the equipment on hand could not measure the exact amount. Despite efforts to keep the plant open, the reactor was dismantled in the years following the incident.