The quest to develop the most powerful source of energy and fuel is and always has been a tireless one. Around the 1930s, that quest crossed paths with the development of the most powerful weapon in the world, one that would make anyone in its path cower in fear and unquestioning cooperation. But research into the use of nuclear fuel and weapons has not come without a price. As the technology and the science around nuclear power is notoriously unstable, it has led to accidents and tragedies that have left people homeless, with lifelong medical conditions, local businesses suffering, people without jobs, or much worse.
In 1990, the International Atomic Energy Agency introduced a scale that would measure the severity of accidents in nuclear plants and processing facilities with a range from 0 to 7. This is a rising scale – as the number increases, the severity of the accident rises. There have been numerous nuclear accidents in the past, and as man continues in nuclear research and development it’s likely that accidents will only continue. There have been many accidents that fall into different categories on this scale, with two tragedies ranking at level 7 area and several in the region of level 6.
Along with accidents, some of the most casualty-ridden nuclear tragedies have involved the intentional use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear material and radiation has become responsible for numerous deaths and chronic health conditions – unfortunately it may only be a matter of time before we can add another disaster or bombing to this horrifying list.
5. Windscale Fire – Level 5
The Windscale Fire was considered to be one of the worst nuclear accidents in the history of Great Britain. The accident took place at the Windscale nuclear reactor factory and plutonium-production plant located in Cumberland county on October 8th, 1957 and hit Level 5 on the INES scale. It involved two of the plant’s nuclear reactors that were gas-cooled when a routine heating of reactor number one’s graphite control blocks caused the adjacent uranium cartridges to explode when things got out of control.
The uranium was released into the air and began to oxidize, which then caused a fire to burn for 16 hours due to the release of radioactivity. About ten tons of radioactive fuel melted into the reactor core and caused an unspeakable amount of radioactive iodine to be released into the air. Milk sales from farms around the reactor site were stalled, and the reactor was sealed until the 1980s when cleanup commenced. The cleanup is expected to finally wrap up next year. The poison was absorbed by several people since there was no evacuation, which led to doctors and researchers monitoring cases of thyroid cancer in the area.
4. Kyshtym – Level 6
On September 29th, 1957, a plutonium plant called Mayak was at the center of an accident that involved radiological contamination. The plant was known for nuclear weapons development as well as nuclear fuel processing in the midst of the Soviet Union’s race to develop the atomic bomb. Unfortunately in this rush, scientists, technicians, and other workers were careless with their safety precautions and standards of running a nuclear plant. A coolant tank broke, which led to eighty tons of coolant evaporating in the reactor heat, which then caused an ammonium nitrate explosion.
The blast had the force of one hundred tons of TNT and caused the 160-ton containment lid to blow off, which led to the spread of radioactive waste over 3500 kilometers. The area surrounding the plant was evacuated. The disaster has been named after the nearest major town, Kyshtym. On the INES scale, the Kyshtym disaster was rated at a Level 7, and today – even decades after the incident – it is considered to be one of the most contaminated places in the world.
3. Fukushima – Level 7
The nuclear disaster of Fukushima could not have happened at a worse time. On March 11, 2011 the Tohoku earthquake (which hit 9.0 on the richter scale) caused a massive tsunami that hit the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant and resulted in the meltdown of three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors. Two workers were sent to the hospital for radiation burns. On March 12th, the plant subsequently began releasing dangerous amounts of radioactive material that set not only Japan but the rest of the world on high alert. The disaster quickly hit Level 7 on the INES, and it is said that cleanup will take decades, as 10-30% of the plant’s radioactive material was released. 300,000 people were evacuated from the area, and while these people were exposed to little or no radiation, the conditions in which they were evacuated caused a high amount of sickness and less-than-favorable living conditions. The disaster also caused a significant amount of hospital closures which indirectly resulted in numerous deaths, as the area was still dealing with the impact of the tsunami. Between the earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima, it was a terrible time in Okuma, Fukushima, Japan that left the area in ruins from which they are still trying to rebuild the region.
2. Chernobyl – Level 7
Imagine having emergency authorities breaking into your home, telling you to leave as soon as possible – not realizing that you would never return. That’s exactly what happened on April 26, 1986 when the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine experienced a major accident that resulted in at least 53 deaths and chronic health issues for countless others, from workers to civilians who lived around the area. The power plant was under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Union at the time. Technicians had been experimenting with different types of shutdowns (ironically) when an unexpected power surge caused the containment vessel to burst and caused the building to explode.
The 19 mile radius around the power plant was evacuated as emergency workers swooped in to assist and radioactive clouds grew in the sky and spread over Europe. The INES rated the accident as a level 7 emergency. Since the accident, Chernobyl is still uninhabitable and it’s considered risky to even be in the vicinity. According to the former director of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station Igor Gramotkin, it will take about 20,000 years for Chernobyl to return to normal. The accident also cost the Ukraine approximately $235 billion. Today, devastating photos of Chernobyl’s abandoned grounds abound while numerous fringe groups are known to attempt to break in and explore the area.
The tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still resonates in the country of Japan, and with each passing year, the country remembers and mourns the loss of between 129,000-246,000 lives (among which thousands remain unaccounted for, to this day). On August 6th, 1945, the United States aircraft Enola Gay dropped the bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. Thousands were killed either from injuries or vaporization. Just a few days later, President Truman gave the okay to dispatch the plane Bockscar which would drop the “Fat Man” bomb on Nagasaki. Many of those who survived the bombings were left with permanent scarring or disfigurement.
The Little Boy bomb caused a 13 kiloton nuclear explosion in Hiroshima, and Fat Man caused a 21 kiloton explosion. Needless to say, the bomb nearly wiped these cities off the map. It would take the cities many years to rebuild and become habitable again. When faced with criticism over the high loss of Japanese civilians, the United States government held that Japan had numerous chances to avoid the tragedies.
Many of the survivors are still alive today and have taken a strong stance against nuclear warfare, participating in activism against nuclear weapons.