5. Brazil’s Goiânia Accident
Sometimes humans get creative with how we spread our radioactive contamination. A radiotherapy medical institute, “Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia”, left one site for another in 1985. The problem is that they left some radiological equipment behind at their old place of business. A canister of highly radioactive material made its way out of the defunct premises and into the black market where it was repeatedly handled and pawned. Eventually, the device made its way to a scrapyard. Four people who handled the device repeatedly perished. At least 249 others tested positive for radioactive exposure. Due to how radioactivity is dispersed, the Goiana accident is perhaps the most unique of the world’s nuclear disasters.
4. Radiotherapy Accident in Zaragoza, Spain
Another mishap in the radio-therapeutic field, a number of cancer patients were cooked by an overpowered electron accelerator at the Clinic of Zaragova in 1990. Eleven patients met an early demise and at least 16 more were wounded. Symptoms included burnt skin, organs, and bone marrow. Exasperating the problem was a bad stroke of luck- namely, the delay of the annually scheduled safety board inspection. The accident was certainly not as widespread as the Goiânia accident, but it proved to be more fatal to those afflicted.
3. Kyshtym Disaster
Obviously outclassed in nuclear technology by their post-World War II American rivals, the Soviet Union became desperate to catch up. One of the end results was a closed city named Ozyorsk (Soviets loved having classified towns and cities) that enshrouded a nuclear facility by the name of Mayak. Radioactive sludge was subsequently pumped directly into the Techa River (from there to the Ob River and ultimately the Arctic Ocean) and later stored at Lake Karachay (largely considered the most densely polluted area in the world). As if this facility wasn’t a disaster already, there was an explosion on September 29, 1957. Over a half million people were affected by differing levels of radiation. Many of the towns along the Techa River, who had already been drinking deliberately contaminated water, were evacuated around a week later. Discretion, as usual, was the Soviets’ chief concern. By the time they were warned off, many of these inhabitants had skin falling off of their faces and other mysterious ailments.
2. Fukushima Daiichi
For whatever reason, the Japanese thought it was a good idea to place a nuclear power plant along shores frequented by earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis. It is amazing that the plant, commissioned since 1971, hadn’t experienced a disaster earlier. Not surprisingly, a ridiculously large quake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. Nature knocked Fukushima Daichi (Fukushima I), one of the 15 largest power plants in the world, out of business. Once cooling systems were flooded out and power low, radioactivity spewed forth. Reactors overheated while a hold was put on using seawater to prevent an imminent meltdown. By the time the red tape cleared to do permanent harm to the nuclear apparatus with the sea water, it was too late to prevent the meltdowns. The end result is a 20 square km restricted zone surrounding the area. Luckily geographical features prevented the need for a larger Chernobyl-sized zone. While this disaster currently ranks #2 on our list, future discoveries concerning the health of nearby Japanese citizens might easily push the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster past our current champion.
Ever since 1986, the disaster in Chernobyl has influenced popular myths and realities alike. A zone of 19 miles (30 km) was subsequently cleared of people and remains mostly unoccupied to this day. Chernobyl itself was a small town of medieval origin, but even more famous is the now vacant city of Pripyat. An increasing amount of tourists and photojournalists have visited the city’s iconic locations, such as the Ferris wheel and the amusement park. The accident at Chernobyl stands as a symbol of the diabolical nature of a Soviet regime who was more concerned with trying to cover up the accident than getting its people the help they needed. Mythically, Chernobyl has been tied to the Russian movie S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (1979) due to the similarities between the forbidden zones in the movie and in the real world. Such a huge amount of folklore and mythology surrounds the zone that a series of games and movies have explored concepts from artifact hunters that delve into radioactive areas to mutant creatures lurking among the old ruins. Even the concrete structure used to contain the melted down reactor is called a sarcophagus, like it is holding the corpse of a dormant beast. Not to be lost among the tales surrounding Chernobyl are the sacrifices made by the firefighters and other workers on that first day that helped prevent even more widespread damage.