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Nuclear Accidents: A Brief History

Fortunately, serious accidents involving nuclear reactors have been few so far—and their stories teach us the importance of keeping it that way.

Fukushima Dai-Ichi

Fukushima, Japan

March 2011

The earthquake and tsunami that struck eastern Japan on March 11, 2011, caused a serious accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on the northeastern coast of Japan. 

How did it happen?
The earthquake cut off external power to the reactors. tsunami, which reached levels more than twice as high as the plant was designed to withstand, disabled backup diesel generators, crippling the reactor cooling systems. Battery power was quickly exhausted, and overheating fuel in the plant's operating reactor cores led to hydrogen explosions that severely damaged three of the reactor buildings. Fuel in three of the reactor cores melted, and radiation releases from the damaged reactors contaminated a wide area surrounding the plant and forced the evacuation of nearly half a million residents.

More about Fukushima  


Chernobyl

Chernobyl, Ukraine (former Soviet Union)

April 26, 1986

Chernobyl is considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster to date. It occurred on April 26, 1986, when a sudden surge in power during a reactor systems test resulted in an explosion and fire that destroyed Unit 4. Massive amounts of radiation escaped and spread across the western Soviet Union and Europe. As a result of the disaster, approximately 220,000 people had to be relocated from their homes.

How did it happen?
Unit 4 was to be shut down for routine maintenance. A test was conducted to determine the plant equipment’s ability to provide sufficient electrical power to operate the reactor core cooling system and emergency equipment during the transition period between a loss of main station electrical power supply and the start-up of the emergency power supply. Workers did not implement adequate safety precautions or alert operators to the electrical test’s risks. This lack of awareness led the operators to engage in actions that diverged from safety procedures. Consequently, a sudden power surge resulted in explosions and nearly complete destruction of the reactor. The fires that broke out in the building contributed to the extensive radioactive releases.

Three Mile Island

Middletown, Pennsylvania, USA

March 28, 1978

The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island Unit 2 is considered the most serious nuclear accident in U.S. history, although it resulted in only small radioactive releases.

How did it happen?
The accident began with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a human-operated relief valve in the primary system that stuck open, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. Plant operators’ initial failure to correctly identify the problem compounded it. In particular, a hidden indicator light led to an operator manually overriding the automatic emergency cooling system because he mistakenly believed that too much coolant water in the reactor had caused the steam pressure release. Eventually the reactor was brought under control, although the full extent of the accident was not understood until later.

Enrico Fermi Unit 1

Frenchtown Charter Township, Michigan, USA

October 5, 1966

Coolant flow blockage in two fuel channels led to the partial meltdown of two fuel assemblies at Fermi Unit 1.

How did it happen?
Fermi Unit 1 was the nation’s first and only commercially operating liquid metal fast breeder reactor. Vibrations caused a component within the reactor vessel to loosen, which blocked coolant flow when hydrodynamic forces carried it up the fuel subassemblies’ inlet nozzle. Workers did not notice what had occurred until core temperature alarms sounded. Several fuel rod subassemblies reached temperatures of up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, causing them to melt. After the reactor was shut down for repairs, it was returned to partial operation periodically until 1972, but it was never again fully operational. It was officially decommissioned in 1975.

SL-1

Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA

January 3, 1961

The withdrawal of a single control rod caused a catastrophic power surge and steam explosion at the SL-1 boiling water reactor that killed all the workers on duty at the time.

How did it happen?
On January 3, 1961, workers were in the process of reattaching to their drive mechanisms control rods they had disconnected earlier that day to enable test equipment to be inserted in the reactor core. They lifted the central control rod 20 inches, instead of the four inches that was required.  This error caused the reactor to go critical and its power to surge 6,000 times higher than its normal level in less than a second. As a result, nuclear fuel vaporized and a steam bubble was created. The steam bubble expanded so quickly that it pushed water above it against the reactor vessel, which caused it to jump out of its support structure. It hit an overhead crane and then returned to the reactor vessel. In the process, all of the water and some of the fuel was released from the reactor vessel. All three workers on duty received lethal doses of radiation, in addition to trauma from the explosion.

Sodium Reactor Experiment

Outside Los Angeles, California, USA

July 1959

A partial meltdown occurred at the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) due to cooling flow blockage that caused the reactor core to overheat.

How did it happen?
The Sodium Reactor Experiment experienced extensive fuel damage during a power run. Thirteen of forty-three fuel elements overheated when the cooling flow provided by the liquid sodium was blocked by tetralin, an oil-like fluid which had leaked into the primary sodium loop during prior power runs. This overheating caused the reactor core to fail. Fission products were released from the damaged fuel into the primary sodium loop. Some of the fission products leaked from the primary sodium loop into the high bay area, a region inside the building housing the reactor. Other fission products flowed with the helium cover gas over the liquid sodium in the reactor pool to gaseous storage tanks. Fission products from the high bay area and from the gaseous storage tanks were processed through the filters of a ventilation system and discharged to the atmosphere.

Windscale

Cumberland (now Cumbria), UK

October 10, 1957

Windscale Unit 1’s core caught fire and melted, which led large amounts of radioactivity to be released to the surrounding area.

How did it happen?
Before the accident, Unit 1 was activated to release built-up energy in the graphite of the core. The fuel was cooler than the normal operating temperature and was warming more slowly than expected. A second release led to a higher temperature than workers expected. Eventually the temperature was more than 750 degrees Fahrenheit, so air was vented to cool it. The reactor caught fire, igniting an estimated 11 tons of uranium. Workers first used carbon dioxide to try to put out the fire, but that strategy failed. Next they used water, which eventually succeeded. It took workers a total of three days to put out the fire. In the meantime, radiation escaped through the chimney and contaminated much of the surrounding area and reached as far as mainland Europe. More than 200 cancer deaths are attributed to the disaster, which is considered to have been the worst to occur in the West.

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