The Worst Nuclear Disasters: Navigating the Cause, History and Legality (Part I)

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Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi, and the bombings during World War II marked the worst nuclear disasters in world history.  After Chernobyl, many assumed that the world order was beginning to restrain its ignorance. And now, it could finally tame nuclear or atomic energy to incapacitate further destruction. But Fukushima hit right at the world in a few years from Chernobyl.

This article is the first in the bi-part series, which will discuss the history and significance of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, including those orchestrated by states to cause destruction and others like the nuclear accident of Fukushima. The second part will analyse industrial accidents from the perspective of their long-lasting echoes in the social fabric. In the first article, Ankita Ravikumar writes how ‘nuclear energy’ became elementary for nation-states to exhibit power. She does so by highlighting the worst nuclear disasters and locates the liability.

The world's worst nuclear disasters


By Ankita Ravikumar, Graduate from ILS Law College, Pune. Ankita is a member of the Lawctopus Writers Club.

Navigating the Nuke: Introduction

What if Hiroshima had never discovered the atom bomb? And Chernobyl and Fukushima never happened? These questions don’t pose a lost regret. Instead, they attempt to deconstruct the events that lead to the series of mass destructions.

March 2021 marked ten years since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The disaster hit Japan on March 11, 2011, killing more than 15000 people owing to radiation from a nuclear power station located in Fukushima, which suffered several meltdowns. It prompted the world to keep an eye out for the future.

The article revisits the past to understand the future and whether we’re ready for it. It gives an altered ‘humane’ lens and probes if anything has changed since 2011.

The article will first understand the historical making of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, tracing back to the story of its origins. Then, following the history of the world war, the article will describe two of the most significant events that shook the world; Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi. Finally, with a special focus on Fukushima Daiichi, the article will understand if the world is ready legally and socially to pose against such disasters.

Going Back in Time: How Did Sone of the First Worst Nuclear Disasters Unfold?

The Uranium Club or Uranverein was Germany’s first foray into nuclear physics solely for world domination.  Germany’s first Nuclear Weapon Project was established to combat allied forces during World War II.

This Club boasted accomplished nuclear physicists of the twentieth century like Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn, Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, among others, who had partaken in making the weapons of mass destruction.

One of the atomic behemoths, Otto Hahn, discovered the neutron as a byproduct and enabler of nuclear fission in 1938 and was awarded for it. Similarly, Heisenberg was held in high esteem as a theoretical physicist, at par with Einstein. With such names to its credit, Germany was, in fact, the pioneer of nuclear fission.

Consequently, the Nazi Party directed this crucial research towards adding an atomic bomb to their arsenal. Alarmed by the same, Albert Einstein addressed President Roosevelt in an eye-opening letter dated August 2, 1939.

worst nuclear desire
2nd August 1939: The first page of a letter from the physicist Albert Einstein to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt raising the possibility that Germany could build an atomic bomb. The letter led to America building an atomic bomb in what was known as the Manhattan Project. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

As a result of the letter and Germany’s increasing dominance, the United States developed the ‘Manhattan Project’ with the sole purpose to beat the Germans. Going further, the article will cover the Manhattan Project in detail.

It’s already known that despite Germany’s grounding in atomic research, the US defeated the Germans in a race for the A-bomb. But how did that happen?

The Germans failed for multiple reasons, and one cannot pin down a particular instance.

After their Jewish counterparts exited Germany for fear of the Fuhrer, the Germans and their strength had begun to totter. And those that remained had to walk the tightrope of nationalist loyalty. Scientists and physicists working towards the project felt disillusioned on learning that their dedication to science was deemed valuable only for explosive destruction.

Putting an a-bomb in Hitler’s hands was a bit of a stretch even for ‘loyal’ German physicists.

Also, German’s technical process had hit a blow. While they tried to manufacture a different element to hasten the process, it cost the German’s their nuclear ambitions. This particular element was called ‘heavy water’.[1]

The Germans used ‘heavy waters’ as a moderator instead of granite. (a required element of the nuclear reactor). They produced the same only at Vemork, a hydroelectric facility, in Southern Norway. However, the British found a way to exploit it.

When the British came to know about the usage of heavy waters, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill introduced Operation Gunnerside.[2] This Operation was meant to neutralise the Nazis or, as he had put it then, ‘to set Europe ablaze’.

On February 28 1943, Gunnerside operatives covertly targeted and destroyed Vemork, leaving the Nazi nuclear program in shambles.

Ultimately, Uranverein did more for the rival countries than for Germany.

The MAUD Committee 

Formed in 1940 in Britain, the MAUD Committee was composed of a specialised group of distinguished scientists. They came together to assess the possibilities of nuclear technology, both during and after the War. The Committee published two critical reports in the Summer of 1941. These were:

  • ‘Use of Uranium for a Bomb’
  • ‘Use of Uranium as a Source of Power’.

As suggested by the MAUD Committee, the latter fostered bonhomie between Britain and America. While Britain worked tirelessly to conquer the a-bomb, the Committee’s report asserted that America was not too keen to use uranium for the War. But that lasted only a short while until the Pearl Harbor bombing.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States naval base in Hawaii. Ever since the day dawned, America actively pushed all available resources for developing a ‘special weapon’. And so it did.

The Manhattan Project

As a double blow to Hitler’s atomic ambitions, the Jewish physicists forced to emigrate from Germany joined hands with American scientists on the Manhattan Project.

As an outcome, the world saw ‘Little Boy’ incinerate Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Three days later, ‘Fat Man’ claimed Nagasaki. Owing to the same, Japanese Emperor Hirohito gave up.

Leslie Richards Groves, a US Army Corps of Engineers Officer who directed the Manhattan Project, had stated,

“In answer to the question, ‘was the development of the atomic bomb by the United States necessary?’

I reply unequivocally, ‘Yes’.

‘Is atomic energy a force for good or evil?’

I can only say, ‘As mankind wills it’.”[3]

Commercialising the Compound

The popular misconception shoved down the new world order was that the race for nukes had ceased. But, as it turned out, it never did, and Japan was only beginning to expand.

Instead of drawing back, both Soviet and American scientists pushed ahead with the dangerous research to see how far they can stretch the atom. In effect, the a-bomb stopped the World War in its tracks but invited the Cold War.

The 34th US President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed Atoms for Peace to solve the ‘fearful atomic dilemma’. And nuclear research for peaceful purposes was the new American plan.[4]

The Soviets followed suit with similar plans to put their great nation at par with the capitalist West. Communist Party Leader of the erstwhile Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev introduced Perestroika.[5]

Then Came Chernobyl

The Soviets engineered an expansive plan to harness nuclear energy, building entire cities and towns to house the employees working at the nuclear power plants. These ‘atomic towns’ or ‘Atomograd’, the most secretive, elitist colonies, mirrored perfection.

The town of Pripyat had nestled contently before the seemingly innocent Chernobyl complex.

When Chernobyl achieved its first 10 billion KW output in 1979, the Soviets marvelled at their engineering prowess. Less than two months to Chernobyl, Vitali Sklyarov, the Minister of Power and Electrification of Ukraine, said,

“The odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years. The plants have safe and reliable controls that are protected from any breakdown with three safety systems”[6]

The Chernobyl control room was mandated with an ill-fated safety test to observe how Unit 4 operates at minimal power. Instead, it pushed the RBMK reactor to a breaking point—the same cue to the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

The first explosion uncorked a 500-ton lid to the reactor chamber. Then, quick on its heels, the second loud blast spewed fatal fissile material into the world outside. And Pripyat was awake.

Nikolai Gorbachenko, who monitored radiation levels for Unit 3 and 4 in his account, recalled the events of the night. He said,

“Just as in a horror film, the blast blew out the double doors that had been latched. Black-red dust started coming out of the ventilation vent. We put on our gas masks . . . Then two guys walked in. They said: “Hey, buddies, help us find a comrade of ours, Vladimir Shoshunok.”

The fire brigade came to action after the disaster had struck outside the plant, blaring alarms for emergency and sending shockwaves across the vicinity.

In this series by the New York Times, Leonid Shavrej, assigned to Chernobyl’s fire brigade, spoke about his experience. He said,

 “There was a loud thud that made the windows rattle. We jumped out on the street, ran toward our trucks, and heard the dispatcher yell that there was a fire at the atomic station. We looked up and saw a mushroom cloud; it also looked like the chimney above the Unit 4 reactor was half gone.”

Pripyat residents were kept under the dark, and the disaster was dismissed as ‘a harmless steam discharge’.[7] However, many could get the inclining. For instance, in the NY Times story, many said that the air tasted like acrid metal.

While the state hushed the expanse of disaster, the people of Pripyat consumed radioactive nuclides for the next 36 hours. Many of the first responders and plant staff succumbed within three weeks, their final resting place made of sealed metal coffins buried in concrete.

Followed By Fukushima

The world had seen too many incidents to know that nuclear reactors and the nation-states contributed to the disaster. Instead, all the stories that came before Fukushima were made of negotiation with security and deliberate negligence. And such was the destruction of Fukushima.

Set on the eastern coast of Japan, an epitome of modern nuclear technology, Fukushima Daiichi repeated history.

On March 11, 2011, the plant withstood a 6.6 magnitude earthquake, categorised as ‘Severe’.

What followed the earthquake proved to be the undoing for Fukushima—starting from a tsunami that struck Fukushima, compromising a critical system. All reactors operational during the quake were running on borrowed time. With a series of power cuts, the cooling systems considered indispensable to a reactor core gave up.

After that, complications from over-heated reactor fuel caused hydrogen explosions within the belly of the beast. Subsequently, damaged reactor buildings, radioactive release to the environs and three melted nuclear cores marked the beginning of another disaster.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported no evidence of severe radiation injury among workers in the direct vicinity of the plant. However, mandatory evacuation of half a million people, uninhabitable lands and $40 billion (¥ 3808 million) in compensation had placed Fukushima alongside Chernobyl as the scale of destruction was almost parallel.

What hasn’t changed?

Till now, the article revisited the worst nuclear disasters that got attention due to the magnitude of explosion and destruction. This part will focus on what has not changed even after  2011, understanding what has the world learn?

Despite the massive blow after Chernobyl and Fukushima, investors and government regulators seem to be stuck in bureaucratic quicksand. An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, published in 2015, mentioned the following findings.

“A major factor that contributed to the accident was the widespread assumption in Japan that its nuclear power plants were so safe that an accident of this magnitude was simply unthinkable. As a result, Japan was not sufficiently prepared for a severe nuclear accident in March 2011”

Chernobyl and Fukushima were born out of insufficient safety measures justified in the name of a ‘low probability incident’. Although minor, all nuclear events between Chernobyl and Fukushima have left the nuclear energy industry barely standing on a limb. Lessons from the past combined with the economics of nuclear energy prompted global mistrust.

In a recent example, Germany has started decommissioning most of its reactors, which costs more than what’s needed to keep them running. Presently, public fear is deciding the direction of nuclear policy.[8]

What has changed?

After ten years of Fukushima, it is crucial to assess the key takeaways. But, first, we must ask is; if the nation-states continue to produce nuclear energy and should such an event occur again, are we prepared from an administrative and legal end?

The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010 is India’s response to nuclear events and their aftermath. Proposed to enable quick compensation and fix civil liability, it pretty much does its part.

Chapter II (Section 3 to 8) mandates liability on operators in the event of a nuclear tragedy to an extent beyond which the government assumes responsibility.[9]

There is, however, the corporate bureaucracy that is equally responsible for scaling such events. For instance, in the case of Fukushima Daiichi, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) had a lapse in its management. And the same eventually added to the sequence leading up to the disaster.

In similar circumstances, the Nuclear Energy Amendment Act 2015 could be helpful. The Act aims to promote joint ventures between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) and several Public Sector Units (PSUs).

The Act aids the Indian nuclear energy program in two ways. First, joint ventures with our PSUs will hasten the growth of the indigenous energy industry, putting us on the fast track to 63 GWe by 2032. Second, these joint ventures do not include the private sector. This Act also disallows foreign investment in the nuclear energy sector, except for the supply route.[10]

What has also changed is the factor of acceptance. The other side of the coin is represented by France, China, India and Russia’s commitments to the nuclear path. Even with the backdrop of Taishan, Kudankulam has completed its first concrete pour for its fifth reactor.[11]

The article by no means indicates that housing nuclear reactors for energy and power needs are an issue. In fact, since its inception in the 1950s, commercial nuclear energy has found an important place at the table of climate change. According to Internation Energy Agency, in 2018, conventional energy contributed 64 percent to the consumption demand.[12]

Nuclear reactors have improved with each hurdle from faulty structural design and natural disasters to floating power plants. However, it is worth noting that the ratio of reactors to events is not dire. For better context, the world has 443 reactors operational currently versus three major nuclear accidents recorded to date.

This cushion of assurance should not, however, get bartered with responsibility. That is the moral of Fukushima.


[1] Similar to a water molecule in composition, with a critical difference: Heavy Water has a neutron in its nucleus that makes it a key inhibitor for the fission process.

[2] The Lions of Telemark: ‘They Lived to tell the Tale’ collection published by Reader’s Digest.

[3]  Final statements in And Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (1962), 415.

[4] 8th December 1953: US President Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

[5] Mikhail Gorbachev initiated ‘Glasnost’ (openness) and ‘Perestroika’ (restructuring) in the mid-1980s to enable the democratisation of the Soviet Union. These policies allowed the nuclear program to embody economic prosperity. However, the tides turned with Chernobyl, and even the new age of Glasnost couldn’t deliver justice.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Green Party spearheaded anti-nuclear protests, bidding the government to shut down nuclear plants. This manifested after the 2020 German elections, whereafter Angela Merkel announced a phased decommissioning plan.

[9] The Act outlines certain scenarios that dictate Government liability. 1.) A grave natural disaster of an exceptional character, and 2.) An act of armed conflict, hostility, civil war, insurrection or terrorism.

[10] As mandated by the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, private companies cannot be involved in the indigenous nuclear industry regarding investment or share capital for upcoming projects.

[11] “The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) was the outcome of a 1988 inter-governmental agreement between the erstwhile Soviet Union and India. Then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Kudankulam agreement.”

[12] OECD’s ‘Sustainable Development Scenario’ predicts 1000GWe added to global nuclear capacity by 2050 or 25% of the world’s electricity.

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