Think events like the one happening now in Japan are rare? Think again.

Published 9 years ago - 2

By Stephen A. Martin

The most truly sobering thing about the current nuclear crisis in Japan is not the amount of damage and death it has the potential to bring, but how common such disasters are.

Fukushima Nuclear Plant
Image from Japanese television of the billowing Fukushima nuclear plant folling an explosion.

News that Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami centered in the area of Sendai, Japan, caused the cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant to fail, exposing the fuel rods and leading to the possibility of a meltdown, have conjured up images in both the media and the public imagination of Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979. But these are only the most well-known nuclear accidents in the short history of nuclear power.  In fact, not including the current situation in Japan, there have been at least 26 nuclear or radiological accidents significant enough to result in deaths, and at least 13 meltdowns since the first reported fatal mishap in 1945.

In that accident, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, occurred as researcher Harry K. Daghlian, Jr., was testing a new, more powerful nuclear bomb core just 12 days after the United States finished using its first such weapons, detonating them over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.  The plutonium core Daghlian was testing went critical unexpectedly, exposing him to a fatal dose of radiation.  The accident took place on Aug. 21, and he died 25 days later, on Sept. 15, 1945.

That same plutonium core was also responsible for the death of another Los Alamos researcher, physicist Louis Slotin, after an accident on May 21, 1946.  In that accident, the core unexpectedly went critical, and Slotin died of acute radiation poisoning nine days later.  The so-called “Demon Core,” involved in the deaths of both men, was finally put inside a bomb and detonated in a test on July 1 of that year.

Electricity was not generated from a nuclear reaction until 1951, when an experimental power station in Arco, Idaho, generated power in a test. Four years later, that reactor would be the site of the first nuclear meltdown in the U.S., when on Nov. 29, 1955, the reactor’s fuel rods unexpectedly expanded during a coolant flow test.

However, this was not the world’s first nuclear meltdown. That took place in Chalk River, Ontario, on Dec. 12, 1952.  Despite the release of some 66 pounds of fission byproducts and an unknown amount of irradiated water, officials claim the area around the plant was not contaminated.

Routine use of nuclear power for civilian use did not start until 1954, when the Soviet Union’s Obninsk Nuclear Power Station southwest of Moscow went into operation. The first fatal nuclear accident in the Soviet Union, at least as far as we know, took place three years later at Kyshtym, in the Ural Mountains, on Sept. 29, 1957.  Still considered the second-deadliest nuclear accident to date, a cooling system failure at a reprocessing facility for nuclear waste caused an explosion that released a radioactive cloud that killed more than 200 people.  At the time, Soviet authorities were somehow able to keep the evacuation of some 270,000 people a secret, and some 30 communities were quietly removed from maps.

Of course, the most deadly nuclear accident, which also took place in the Soviet Union, was the April 26, 1986, disaster at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. The accident is blamed for more than 4,000 deaths, including those from radiation-induced cancers. An “exclusion zone” of nearly 200 square miles around the former power plant is now a wildlife sanctuary.

Not as familiar, though, is the Windscale disaster, near Sellafield, England, on Oct. 10, 1957, which killed 33 people after a plant designed to produce plutonium for ordinary atomic bombs was converted to produce tritium for hydrogen bombs.  Three days after procedures to make the conversion began, operators discovered they had set eleven tons of nuclear fuel on fire and that it was burning uncontrollably within the reactor. Workers flooded the reactor core to cool it, then sealed it off. It remains sealed to this day out of fear that disturbing it could reignite the fuel which remains inside.  The plant is scheduled to remain as it is until 2037, the earliest authorities believe it will be safe for decommissioning.

By comparison, the March 28, 1979, accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was relatively minor. No one died directly from the accident, although a spike in infant mortality was reported afterward in downwind communities.

The meltdown at Three Mile Island is today considered a “Level 5? nuclear accident, in the terminology of the International Nuclear Event Scale, adopted in 1990 by the International Atomic Energy Agency to describe the threat posed by such disasters.  Like the Richter Scale for describing the seriousness of earthquakes, each level is logarithmically more significant than the one before it.

The INES scale goes up to Level 7, with the disaster at Chernobyl the only one classified at that level to date.  The accident at Kyshtym is the only one classified at Level 6.  The Chalk River, Windscale, and Three Mile Island accidents are all classified at Level 5.

Nuclear submarines have been responsible for more than their share of disasters.  The Soviet Union lost 27 sailors to nuclear meltdowns on submarines between 1961 and 1985.  The U.S. has never lost a sub, but did lose three operators on Jan. 3, 1961, when the Army’s experimental SL-1 reactor at Idaho Falls, Idaho, exploded due to improper withdrawal of a control rod.

If there is a meltdown at the Fukushima plant, it will not be the first nuclear disaster in Japan.  Of course, there were the 150,000 to 246,000 people who lost their lives in the atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  But there was also a deadly accident on Sept. 30, 1999, at the Tokaimura uranium reprocessing facility which killed two workers when they and another employee accidentally started a nuclear chain reaction. That incident was classified as Level 4.

In the aftermath of the current crisis, be prepared to hear arguments both for and against nuclear power based on the history of atomic energy and its relative safety.  No doubt the incidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island will be discussed.

However, it is important to remember that these disasters are but some of the best-known of a very long list of nuclear mishaps.

Read the latest on the Fukushima power plant here:

Stephen Martin Stephen A. Martin is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oklahoma, and works as a research assistant for the Euchee Tribe of Indians. He received a B.A. in 2003 and an M.A. in American History in 2004 from Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois. He is writing a dissertation titled “Nationalism and Resistance Among the Euchee Indians, 1814-1976,” which he anticipates completing this year. He teaches Introduction to American Indian History, American Indian Ethnohistory to 1870, and U.S. History Survey at the University of Oklahoma. 

Article reposted from Martin’s Blog @

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2 thoughts on “Think events like the one happening now in Japan are rare? Think again.

  • Since this article appeared, some others have started writing about it also.
    And this should encourage documentation of the lies that the governments and nuclear plant owners told to the public at the time.
    Thanks, Stephen.

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