Nuclear is the way of the world today. Nuclear families spend evenings debating nuclear energy. The biggest con of this energy is safety. Many disasters over the years have kept us debating if it is really worth it. There are no power plant accidents, there are only nuclear power plant disasters, because their magnitude and impact is much beyond human imagination.
The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) has come up with an International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), that categorizes nuclear meltdowns on a scale of zero to seven. These categorizations are done on the accident severity and the scale of its impact. The paragraphs below will list some nuclear power plant disasters, segregated according to the INES, starting in the reverse order of scale 7.
Scale 7: Major Nuclear Meltdown
A disaster that can be categorized under scale 7 is the one that destroyed the Chernobyl reactor. The Ukrainian nuclear facility of Chernobyl witnessed an explosion in the unit 4 reactor, in the early morning hours of April 26, 1986. The explosion destroyed the unit in its entirety, and released an incredible amount of radiated fallout into the environment. IAEA and WHO studies revealed that there were 31 direct deaths off the explosion and about 9,85,000 premature deaths due to radiation exposure.
The 4000 cancer deaths due to exposure to carcinogens, are just a meager part of the expected 100000 fatalities. The radioactive fallout that was released in the atmosphere traveled over an extensive geographical area and had spread all through Western Europe in just a span of 1 week. Studies say that this disaster produced radiation that was 400 times more than the radiation release from the Hiroshima bombings.
The after effects of this disaster were
- Nuclear rain in places like Ireland.
- Contamination in large areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
- Four square kilometers of pine land forests browned and died. Today, the region has been renamed as the ‘Red Forest’.
- Many animals died, and the few remaining ones saw thyroid and reproductive problems. However, the later generations did not suffer these problems.
- Large-scale loss of life and lifestyle. About 336000 people were evacuated and resettled due to this tragedy. The only thing that seemed to thrive on it was the black fungi. But even that was found to be unnaturally melanin rich.
The Chernobyl disaster can be blamed on the scientists who chose to experiment by disabling the built in safety systems of the reactor. It can also be blamed on the reactor’s design flaws – inflammatory materials like bitumen were used in the roofing construction. What made the disaster worse, was the Soviet cover up job. Timely information of the disaster would have saved the lives of many.
Scale 6: Major Nuclear Accident
The 1957 Kyshtym disaster falls under this scale category. This radiation contamination disaster occurred on 29th September in a Russian nuclear fuel-reprocessing plant in Mayak. This disaster scaled new heights of nonchalant, unconcerned behavior of the laid back scientists. Before 1953, the ignorant scientists conveniently dumped high level radioactive wastes in the nearby lakes and rivers.
It was in 1953 that proper steel disposal tanks were installed, to store this waste safely without allowing to heat itself. In September 1957, however, one of the cooling systems failed, and about 80 tons of radioactive waste overheated and exploded. The eruption made the lid blow off the container, and though there was no immediate casualty directly off the explosion, about 740 Pbq of radioactivity was released into the environment. It spread about 350km northeast in just over 10 hours. This contaminated area came to be known as the EURT (East Ural Radioactive Trace) site.
The results of this disaster were:
- As the population was neither informed nor evacuated on time, many were affected by mysterious ailments, which were later found to have been caused by radioactive exposure.
- At least 200 cancer deaths occurred before the government took it upon itself to evacuate the people, at least a week too late.
- Though Ozyorsk is now considered safe for humans, the EURT region is still heavily contaminated, and declared a ‘no trespassers’ zone by the Government.
Scale 5: Nuclear Accident with Wider Consequences
The Windscale fire (UK – 1957) and the Three Mile Island accident (US – 1979) fall under scale 5 accidents. On 10th October 1957, Windscale, Cumberland’s nuclear reactor caught fire on its graphite core. The cause named officially for this disaster was the rupturing of a Uranium can, though later studies maintained that it was actually a Magnesium/Lithium cartridge.
This disaster would have left behind a full-fledged death trail, had it not been for the valiant efforts of one man, who contained this potential scale 7 candidate to a scale 5. Thomas Tuohy’s prompt display of devotion and efficiency averted this accident from being the worst nuclear disaster ever, till date. He died in March 2008 without receiving any recognition for his bravery, courage, and quick witted promptness.
On March 28, 1979, in the wee hours of morning, the Three Mile Island nuclear generating station witnessed a meltdown of one secondary loop. This accident released 13 million curies of radioactive gases into the atmosphere. 10 court cases were filed on various authorities, concerning this accident, and they took 15 long years to get settled.
Scale 4: Accident with Local Consequences
The five incidents between 1955-1979 in Sellafield (UK), the Tokaimura accident in Japan (1990), and the Saint Laurent Nuclear Power Plant accident in France (1980) are all categorized as a scale 4.
Japan’s worst accident happened in the Uranium reprocessing facility of Tokaimura on 30th September 1999. The workers accidentally put in Uranium that exceeded the predetermined critical mass into the precipitation tank. The resultant self sustaining nuclear fission chain reaction resulted in the deaths of 2 workers, with 119 others receiving lesser exposure, and the hospitalization of many emergency workers and nearby residents. An evacuation was started 5 hours later, relocating everyone within a 350 mile radius of the accident site.
The Saint Laurent power plant consisted of two pressurized water reactors. October 17th, 1969 saw the melting of 50kgs of Uranium. On March 13th 1980, the annealing of graphite was detected, caused by a brief heat excursion. Both incidents were a scale 4 on the INES. The Institute of Marine Biology also found traces of Plutonium in the nearby Loire river.
Scale 3: Serious Incident of Nuclear Spill
The THORP plant at Sellafield (UK), saw an accident in 2005, which was categorized as scale 3 because of a serious leak in radioactive inventory that went unnoticed over several months. The leak that first started in July 2004, was only detected on 9th May 2005, when the safeguards staff detected a major accounting discrepancy in radioactive fluids. This accident saw a spill of 20 metric tons of uranium and 160 kilograms of plutonium, which is indeed quite a big amount.
Scale 2: An Incident
The Asco nuclear power plant in Spain witnessed a radioactive containment in April 2008. The leak actually occurred in November 2007 but the Spanish Nuclear Safety Council was not informed of it till 4th April. An estimated 84.95 million becquerels of radioactivity was spilled just due to inadequate control and incomplete information. This incident got the director fired.
Scale 1: A Nuclear Anomaly
The SOCRATRI facility in Drome, France, saw an anomaly in July 2008. It witnessed a leak of 6000lts of water, containing approximately 75kgs of Uranium into the environment.
The scale of zero is considered a deviation and is not given much importance. However, nuclear power plant disasters need to be taken seriously for their long-lasting effect that sometimes even outlasts generations. It is important to remember that it is not nuclear science that is at fault in these disasters, it is the inadequate safety measures and the lack of proper information that are the real culprits. Nuclear energy can easily be made safe with a little extra effort and education.