James Nesbitt: Disasters That Changed Britain

Top Five Worst Man-Made Disasters

Chernobyl: the worst nuclear accident in history

From the world’s worst nuclear accident to an unthinkable mass poisoning in Japan, these notorious man-made catastrophes caused pain and outrage in equal measure…

The Chernobyl disaster

One night in April 1986, technicians at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine decided to run a safety test on reactor number four, to assess its functionality during a potential power outage. The test went catastrophically wrong and the reactor exploded, blasting radioactive material out into the cold night air.

One worker was killed immediately in the explosion, while dozens of employees and emergency workers were hit by enough radiation to kill them slowly over the following months. “If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor,” one firefighter said. “But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze.”

The catastrophe caused the immediate evacuation of the nearby city of Pripyat, which is today an ominous ghost town of broken buildings, decaying furniture and broken glass – a radioactive nether-world in the heart of a wider Exclusion Zone. Experts still disagree about the full after-effects of the Chernobyl disaster, though a UN study has predicted that the number deaths from cancer caused by the accident will be around the 4,000 mark. This hasn’t deterred the droves of visitors who now embark on guided tours through Pripyat and its eerie surroundings, or the people known as “stalkers” who enter illegally, drawn in by the other-worldly allure of the dead zone.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill

The shimmering, crystal-bright realm of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where wide blue waters are overlooked by jagged, snow-sprinkled mountains, is a picture of unspoilt natural beauty. So the world reacted in horror when this delicate ecosystem fell victim to one of the worst ever oil spills in 1989. Just after midnight on 24 March, the vast Exxon Valdez tanker ploughed into a reef, ripping the hull open and letting almost 11 million gallons of crude oil out into the water. Before long, more than 1,000 miles of the picturesque coastline had turned black, spelling disaster for the animals of the region.

'We have a mess on our hands.'

Joseph Hazelwood, Exxon Valdez's Captain

It was a disaster so great that even Exxon didn’t mince words, with one company spokesman saying, “The clean-up is not proceeding well. Believe me, that is an understatement. We have a mess on our hands.” The ship’s captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was initially suspected of being drunk on the job, but was eventually acquitted of those charges in court. Meanwhile, thousands of animals from birds to otters to killer whales perished in the black waters of the once-pristine sound, and the ecosystem has never fully recovered.

The Bhopal gas leak

When a local off-shoot of US chemicals company Union Carbide opened a pesticide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal, it promised to bring jobs and prosperity to the region. But, as the years went on, the plant become increasingly unprofitable. Staff numbers were cut, the structure fell into increasing disrepair, and a local journalist was alarmed at the deadly threat which the stockpiled chemicals posed to the local people. “Wake up people of Bhopal,” he wrote. “You are on the edge of a volcano!”

'We were writhing, coughing and slobbering froth.'

A survivor of the disaster

His words were hideously prophetic. One night in December 1984, a tank of toxic gas began to leak into the atmosphere, with the deadly cloud floating through Bhopal as the oblivious locals slept. “The pain was unbearable,” one victim later recalled. “We were writhing, coughing and slobbering froth. People just got up and ran in whatever clothes they were wearing. Some were in their underclothes, others wore nothing at all. It was complete panic.” Thousands would die in agony, and the region went on to suffer generations of birth defects, as well as lingering toxic damage to the environment – to many, the Bhopal disaster, caused by corporate neglect, has never really ended

The Minamata poisonings

In April 1956, doctors in Minamata, Japan were shocked by the case of two young sisters who were suddenly unable to walk or speak properly, and were suffering convulsions. Over the following days, more and more people exhibited the same symptoms, heralding what one medic called an “epidemic of an unknown disease of the central nervous system”. Locals feared an infectious outbreak was sweeping through the city, but this was no virus. In fact, it soon transpired that the cats of Minamata were also convulsing and dying.

The real reason? Mercury poisoning. A chemical factory had been dumping waste into the local ecosystem for decades, causing mercury levels to accumulate in the fish and shellfish of Minamata Bay – fish and shellfish that was then consumed by the unsuspecting citizens and their cats. With great fanfare, the company then unveiled a special filtration system to supposedly curb the pollution, but this was just a PR stunt. They knew the system was useless, and the deadly pollution continued for years afterwards, causing thousands of deaths as well as devastating birth defects.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion

In April 2010, a sudden blowout occurred at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. An apocalyptic fireball rushed into the heavens, visible for miles around, and 11 crewmen perished in the explosion. But this was just the beginning of the disaster. As the inferno continued to burn, the rig became increasingly unstable and eventually sank into the waters of the gulf. Beneath the waves, the ruptured well began to gush crude oil the way an arterial wound will gush blood.

And it continued to gush for a staggering 87 days, as workers desperately tried and failed to cap the hole. Thousands of square miles were covered by the escaped oil, killing untold numbers of turtles, birds, dolphins and other marine life, and ravaging the US shoreline, in what then-President Obama called “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced”.