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Nuclear meltdowns and ruptured dams, reactor fires and explosions: disasters that should never have happened.

The story of nuclear energy is also the story of its catastrophes. Mayak, Windscale, Three Mile Island , Church Rock, Chernobyl and Fukushima are some of the best known examples; six places where nuclear energy got out of control; six places which accelerated the decline of a technology that had once been launched euphorically. After 70 years of the so-called peaceful use of nuclear energy, we are instead left with melted reactor cores, uninhabitable regions, radioactive clouds and countless deaths.

Part of the story of these disasters, however, is also the attempt to conceal or downplay them. Cover-ups are an integral element of the nuclear industry. Initially, the triple meltdown in Fukushima in March of 2011 was a significant exception. Pictures of the collapsing nuclear reactors could be seen online around the world in real time. But the consequences are still trivialized today, even in Japan. Health effects, the extent of the contamination, the helplessness of aid workers and the enormous costs, are all downplayed.

But as early as its first decade, despite the growing enthu­siasm for airplanes and cars with nuclear propulsion, and even for small reactors in each household, nuclear energy revealed its dark side: at Mayak and Windscale.

October 10th, 1957. In the northwest of England, on the coast of the Irish Sea, a fire erupts in the nuclear reactor Windscale I. Due to faulty temperature indicators and subse­quent operating mistakes during maintenance work, the fuel channels overheat. Channel 20/53 glows red like a cherry. All attempts to cool down the reactor are unsuccessful: the core temperature rises to 1,300 degrees Celsius: Windscale is burning. While a fire blazes in the heart of the 2,000-tonne graphite block, radioactive smoke is continuously emitted through the smokestack. The people in the region are asleep in their beds, unaware of what is happening. All attempts to extinguish the fires using carbon dioxide and water fail. Finally, at the third attempt, the fire is finally put out. The population is only warned after the fire is extinguished. The milk of neighboring farms is collected and dumped into the sea; millions of liters of radioactively contaminated water seeps into the soil around the reactor.

By 1990, there are 70 investigative reports about the 1957 Windscale fire. Researchers try to convert the amount of released radiation into the number of deaths by cancer. In the end, they agree on a number: 100 victims. In the 1980s, a surge in leukemia cases causes concerns until memory slowly fades again. Windscale was even erased linguistically, with the complex renamed Sellafield in 1981.

Meanwhile, in September 1957, a tank with highly radioactive waste explodes in Mayak in Russia. Here, in the nuclear bomb factory of the Soviet Union, ten reactors produce plutonium for the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Even during normal operation, immense amounts of radioactivity are released into the environment. Nuclear particles and waste are disposed of either through the smokestacks or directly into the river Techa. When, in 1953, the local population begins to show signs of radiation effects, the first village in the vicinity is evacuated; by 1956 another 18 villages follow.

A year later, the explosion occurs and can be seen hundreds of kilometers away yet is officially declared to be a polar light event. At a height of 1,000 meters, the radioactive cloud travels in a northeasterly direction, leaving behind a radioactive trail 40 kilometers wide and 300 kilometers long. An area of 20,000 square kilometers with approximately 270,000 inhabitants is radioactively contaminated. More and more regions need to be evacuated.

The explosion is kept secret until Moscow finally admits to the disaster in 1989. According to assessments by the Inter­national Atomic Energy Agency, the Mayak explosion is the third-largest nuclear disaster in history after Chernobyl and Fukushima. Experts of the Helmholtz Center in Munich put it on the same hazard level as Chernobyl. The radioactivity level released in Mayak may have been even higher.

The United States experienced its own two nuclear disasters in 1979. In March, a growing number of experts are fighting to control reactor Unit 2 at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg. The glowing reactor core gushes to the floor of the reactor pressure vessel in a cascading torrent. It is a miracle that the pressure vessel holds. Three fourths of the core, made up of 36,816 fuel rods, melts at temperatures of almost 2,800 degrees Celsius. Failed cooling water pumps, two incorrectly set valves at the back-up pumps, a note on the control panel covering the valve indicators, and several operating errors lead to the disaster.

Children and pregnant women in an eight-kilometer radius are evacuated. At least 70,000 people flee the region. Nobody knows how much radioactivity was released into the environment. The statement of the lieutenant governor of the state of Pennsylvania, Bill Scranton, is unforgettable: “We have everything under control. There are no risks for the health and safety of the population.”

In July of the same year, a tailings dam bursts in Church Rock, sending shock waves through the US nuclear industry. Church Rock is a village in the territory of the Diné tribe in the state of New Mexico. There are 20 uranium mines in operation in the area. In the largest one alone, more than 1,000 tonnes of uranium oxide are produced each year thoughout the 1970s. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste are disposed of in huge tailings basins. On July 16th 1979, the walls of one of the basins burst. More than 1,000 tonnes of radioac­tive waste, and an estimated 90 million gallons of radioactive waste water, end up in the Puerco River. This remains the biggest accidental release of radioactive waste in the history of the United States. Three years later, the uranium industry abandons this site.

The Church Rock and Mayak disasters remain largely unrecognized. On the other hand, Chernobyl and Fukushima, the two “classic” nuclear meltdowns, are household names. They produced spectacular images and could not be kept secret. Even in the US, Three Mile Island is well known, while almost no one has heard of Church Rock, which happened the same year. In addition, the global public was more sensitized to the risks of nuclear disasters in 1986 and even more so in 2011.

Millions were able to follow the track of the radioac­tive clouds from Chernobyl and Fukushima. In Japan, they even briefly considered the evacuation of metropolitan Tokyo with its 30 million inhabitants. In Chernobyl, Russian military planes drained the rain clouds with chemical agents, before they could reach Moscow. Many details have become known, but the suffering and the medical consequences for millions of people have disappeared in the noise of statistical data. From Windscale to Fukushima: these six names stand for accidents that, according to risk studies, should not have happened at all, or only once in one hundred thousand years. But they happened with a far higher frequency and their legacy will live on for a very long time.

Further Information

● Stephanie Cooke: In Mortal Hands – A cautionary history of the Nuclear Age. Bloomsbury, 2009
● International Uranium Film Festival: uraniumfilmfestival.org