Nuclear mishaps

Processing, Storage, Shipping and Disposal

From 1946 to 1970 approximately 90,000 cannisters of radioactive waste were jettisoned in 50 ocean dumps up and down the East and West coasts of the U.S., including prime fishing areas, as part of the early nuclear waste disposal program from the military’s atomic weapons program. The waste also included contaminated tools, chemicals, and laboratory glassware from weapons laboratories, and commercial/medical facilities
December 1962 A summary report was presented at an Atomic Energy Commission symposium in Germantown, Maryland, listing 47 accidents involving shipment of nuclear materials to that date, 17 of which were considered “serious.”

11 May 1969
A plutonium fire broke out in Building 776 at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Plutonium was released into the atmosphere and tracked out of the building on the boots of firefighters, and several buildings at the factory were so badly contaminated that they had to be dismantled.

After experimenting with disposal of radioactive waste in salt, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that “Project Salt Vault” would solve the waste problem. But when 180,000 gallons of contaminated water was pumped into a borehole; it promptly and unexpectedly disappeared. The project was abandoned two years later.

The West Valley, NY fuel reprocessing plant was closed after 6 years in operation, leaving 600,000 gallons of high-level wastes buried in leaking tanks. The site caused measurable contamination of Lakes Ontario and Erie.

December 1972
A major fire and two explosions occurred at a Pauling, New York plutonium fabrication plant. An undetermined amount of radioactive plutonium was scattered inside and outside the plant, resulting in its permanent shutdown.

The Critical Mass Energy Project (part of Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, Inc.) tabulated 122 accidents involving the transport of nuclear material in 1979, including 17 involving radioactive contamination.

16 July 1979
A dam holding radioactive uranium mill tailings broke, sending an estimated 100 million gallons of radioactive liquids and 1,100 tons of solid wastes downstream at Church Rock, New Mexico.

August 1979
Highly enriched uranium was released from a top-secret nuclear fuel plant near Erwin, Tennessee. About 1,000 people were contaminated with up to 5 times as much radiation as would normally be received in a year. Between 1968 and 1983 the plant “lost” 234 pounds of highly enriched uranium, forcing the plant to be closed six times during that period.

January 1980
A 5.5 Richter earthquake at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where large amounts of nuclear material are kept, caused a tritium leak.

19 September 1980
An Air Force repairman doing routine maintenance in a Titan II ICBM silo in Damascus, Arkansas dropped a wrench socket, which rolled off a work platform and fell to the bottom of the silo. The socket struck the missile, causing a leak from a pressurized fuel tank. The missile complex and surrounding areas were evacuated. Eight and a half hours later, the fuel vapors ignited, causing an explosion which killed an Air Force specialist and injured 21 others. The explosion also blew off the 740-ton reinforced concrete-and-steel silo door and catapulted the warhead 600 feet into the air. The silo has since been filled in with gravel, and operations have been transferred to a similar installation at Rock, Kansas.

21 September 1980
Two canisters containing radioactive materials fell off a truck on New Jersey’s Route 17. The driver, en route from Pennsylvania to Toronto, did not notice the missing cargo until he reached Albany, New York.

The Department of Energy confirmed that 1,200 tons of mercury had been released over the years from the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Components Plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the U.S.’s earliest nuclear weapons production plant. In 1987, the DOE also reported that PCBs, heavy metals, and radioactive substances were all present in the groundwater beneath Y-12. Y-12 and the nearby K-25 and X-10 plants were found to have contaminated the atmosphere, soil and streams in the area.

December 1984
The Fernald Uranium Plant, a 1,050-acre uranium fuel production complex 20 miles northwest of Cincinnati, Ohio, was temporarily shut down after the Department of Energy disclosed that excessive amounts of radioactive materials had been released through ventilating systems. Subsequent reports revealed that 230 tons of radioactive material had leaked into the Greater Miami River valley during the previous thirty years, 39 tons of uranium dust had been released into the atmosphere, 83 tons had been discharged into surface water, and 5,500 tons of radioactive and other hazardous substances had been released into pits and swamps where they seeped into the groundwater. In addition, 337 tons of uranium hexafluoride was found to be missing, its whereabouts completely unknown. In 1988 nearby residents sued and were granted a $73 million settlement by the government. The plant was not permanently shut down until 1989.

A truck carrying low-level radioactive material swerved to avoid a farm vehicle, went off a bridge on Route 84 in Idaho, and dumped part of its cargo in the Snake River. Officials reported the release of radioactivity.

6 January 1986
A container of highly toxic gas exploded at The Sequoyah Fuels Corp. uranium processing factory in Gore, Oklahoma, causing one worker to die (when his lungs were destroyed) and 130 others to seek medical treatment. In response, the Government kept the plant closed for more than a year and fined owners Kerr-McGee $310,000, citing poorly trained workers, poorly maintained equipment and a disregard for safety and the environment. [See also 24 November 1992.]


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