Summer Quarterly 2018
The World Nuclear Association says on its website that its goal is “to increase global support for nuclear energy,” and repeatedly claims that “there have only been three major accidents across 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of operation in 32 countries.” At least the lobby group acknowledges the catastrophes at Three Mile Island in 1979 (US), Chernobyl in 1986 (USSR), and at Fukushima in 2011 (Japan).
However, claiming that these three stand alone as “major” disasters cynically ignores the series of large-scale disasters that have been caused by uranium mining, nuclear power and weapons, radioactive waste, handling, and the nuclear fuel chain. The following is an abbreviated list of some of the world’s other major radiation accidents.
CHALK RIVER (Ontario), Dec. 2, 1952: A Canadian reactor’s loss-of-coolant caused a meltdown and an explosion and became the first major commercial nuclear reactor disaster.
ROCKY FLATS (Colorado), Sept. 11,1957: This Cold War factory that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons factory 16 miles from Denver caused 30 to 44 pounds of breathable plutonium-239 and Pu-240 to catch fire in what would come to be known as the second largest industrial fire in US history. Filters used to trap the plutonium were destroyed and it escaped through chimneys, contaminating parts of Denver. Nothing was done to protect its downwind residents.
WINDSCALE/SELLAFIELD (Britain), Oct. 7, 1957: The worst of many fires burned through one reactor igniting three tons of uranium and dispersed radionuclides over parts of England and northern Europe. The site was hastily renamed Sellafield.
KYSHTYM/CHELYABINSK-65 (Russia), Sept. 29, 1957: A tank holding 70 to 80 metric tons of highly radioactive liquid waste exploded, contaminating an estimated 250,000 people, and permanently depopulating 30 towns which were leveled and removed from Russian maps. Covered up by Moscow until 1989, Russia finally revealed that 20 million curies of long-lived isotopes like cesium were released and it was later declared a Level 6 disaster on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The long covered-up disaster contaminated up to 10,000 square miles making it the third- or 4th-most serious radiation accident ever recorded.
SANTA SUSANA (Simi Valley, Calif.), July 12, 1959: The meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment just outside Los Angeles caused “the third largest release of iodine-131 in the history of nuclear power,” according to Arjun Makhajani, President of the Institute for Energy & Environmental Research. Released radioactive materials were never authoritatively measured because “the monitors went clear off the scale,” according to an employee. The accident was kept secret for 20 years.
CHURCH ROCK (New Mexico), July 16, 1979: Ninety-three million gallons of liquid uranium mine waste and 1,000 tons of solid wastes spilled onto the Navajo Nation and into Little Puerco River, and became the largest radiological disaster in US history. Little Puerco feeds the Little Colorado River, which drains to the Colorado River which feeds Lake Mead—a source of drinking water for Los Angeles.
MONJU (Japan), Dec. 8, 1995: This sodium-cooled “breeder reactor” caused a fire and a large leak of sodium coolant that contaminated the Pacific. Liquid sodium coolant catches fire on contact with air, explodes on contact with water, and costly efforts to engineer commercial models of breeder reactors have failed.
TOKAI-MURA (Japan), Sept. 30, 1999: A uranium “criticality” or “neutron burst” killed three workers and dispersed radioactivity across the populated urban area surrounding the factory.
—Sources: Gar Smith, Nuclear Roulette (Chelsea Green, 2012); Joseph Mangano, Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment (OR Books 2012);Stephanie Cooke, In Mortal Hands, (Bloomsbury, 2009); Jinzaburo Takagi, Criticality Accident at Tokai-Mura (Citizens’ Nuclear Info. Center, 2000); Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Madness, Revised (Norton, 1995); Arjun Makhijani, et al, Nuclear Wastelands (MIT Press, 1995), and The Nuclear Power Deception (Apex Press, 1999); Catherine Caufield, Multiple Exposures (Harper & Row, 1989); John May, Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age (Pantheon, 1989); Anna Gyorgy, No Nukes (South End Press, 1979).