Background Information: Nuclear Disasters in History

Stalking Chernobyl
Photo courtesy of Vlad Vozniuk/URBEX.


While the Chernobyl explosion is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history, it was far from the world's first nuclear disaster—or the world's last. Below is a list of nuclear disasters, from radioactive contamination in 1957 to a nuclear accident that left five people dead in 2019.

  • September 1957, Kyshtym, Russia. A radioactive contamination accident at a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. Hot particles spread over 20,000 square miles and about 10,000 people were evacuated.
  • October 1957, Cumberland, United Kingdom. A fire at the British atomic bomb project burned for three days, releasing radioactive contamination across the UK and Europe.
  • January 1961, Idaho, United States. An explosion at the National Reactor Testing Station killed 3 operators in the facility.
  • October 1966, Michigan, United States. The Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station just barely escaped disaster when a reactor suffered a partial core meltdown.
  • January 1969, Vaud, Switzerland. An accident at the Lucens reactor led to a partial core meltdown and radioactive contamination in a serious nuclear accident.
  • December 1975, Greifswald, East Germany. An electrical error at the Greifswald Nuclear Power Plant caused a fire that destroyed control lines and coolant pumps in the facility.
  • January 1976, Jaslovské Bohunice, Czechoslovakia. A malfunction during fuel replacement led to a carbon dioxide leak that killed 2 workers.
  • February 1977, Jaslovské Bohunice, Czechoslovakia. A combination of design problems and human mistakes during a fuel change caused the worst nuclear accident in Czech history.
  • March 1979, Pennsylvania, United States. A partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station ranked 5 out of 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
  • March 1985, Alabama, United States. A systems malfunction led to the suspension of operations at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.
  • April 1986, Massachusetts, United States. Recurring equipment problems forced an emergency shutdown of Boston Edison’s Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant.
  • May 1986, Hamm-Uentrop, West Germany. A reactor released small amounts of fission products into the surrounding area.
  • March 1987, Pennsylvania, United States. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered the closing of the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station due to operator misconduct, corporate malfeasance, and blatant disregard for the health and safety of the area.
  • December 1987, New York, United States. Malfunctions forced Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation to shut down one unit of the Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station.
  • March 1989, Maryland, United States. Inspections at two units of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant revealed cracks in pressurized heater sleeves, forcing extended shutdowns.
  • March 1992, Leningrad Oblast, Russia. An accident caused radioactive gases and iodine to leak into the air through a ruptured fuel channel at the Sosnovy Bor Nuclear Plant.
  • February 1996, Connecticut, United States. A leaking valve caused equipment failures and a shutdown at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station.
  • September 1996, Florida, United States. An equipment malfunction forced a shutdown and expensive repairs at Unit 3 of the Crystal River Nuclear Plant.
  • September 1999, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. A nuclear accident killed two workers at a Donen nuclear plant. At least 667 people were exposed to excess radiation as a result of the accident.
  • February 2002, Ohio, United States. Maintenance workers discovered that corrosion has created a football-sized hole in a reactor.
  • April 2003, Paks, Hungary. The collapse of fuel rods at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant led to a radioactive gas leak.
  • August 2004, Fukui Prefecture, Japan. A steam explosion at the Mihama Nuclear Power Plant killed 4 workers and injured 7 others.
  • July 2006, Forsmark, Sweden. An electrical fault at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant caused one reactor to shut down.
  • March 2011, Fukushima Daiichi, Japan. The most severe nuclear accident since Chernobyl, ranking 7 out of 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Over 154,000 people were evacuated.
  • September 2011, Marcoule, France. One person died and four were injured in a blast at the Marcoule Nuclear Site.
  • January 2014, Namib Desert, Namibia. A structural failure caused a major spill at the Rossing Uranium Mine, leading to elevated levels of radioactive materials in the area surrounding the mine.
  • February 2014, New Mexico, United States. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant leaked airborne radioactive materials. 13 workers tested positive for internal radioactive contamination.
  • August 2019, Severodvinsk, Russia. 5 people died in a radiation accident at the State Central Navy Testing Range, which the Russian government called a failed test for a liquid-fuelled rocket engine.