Nuclear Accident Types

Loss of coolant accident

Critical accidents

A critical accident (also sometimes referred to as an "excursion" or "power excursion") occurs when a nuclear chain reaction is accidentally allowed to occur in fissile material, such as enriched uranium or plutonium. The Chernobyl accident is an example of a criticality accident. This accident destroyed a reactor at the plant and left a large geographic area uninhabitable. In a smaller scale accident at Sarov a technician working with highly enriched uranium was irradiated while preparing an experiment involving a sphere of fissile material. The Sarov accident is interesting because the system remained critical for many days before it could be stopped, though safely located in a shielded experimental hall. This is an example of a limited scope accident where only a few people can be harmed, while no release of radioactivity into the environment occurred. A criticality accident with limited off site release of both radiation (gamma and neutron) and a very small release of radioactivity occurred at Tokaimura in 1999 during the production of enriched uranium fuel. Two workers died, a third was permanently injured, and 350 citizens were exposed to radiation.

Decay heat

Decay heat accidents are where the heat generated by the radioactive decay causes harm. In a large nuclear reactor, a loss of coolant accident can damage the core: for example, at Three Mile Island a recently shutdown (SCRAMed) PWR reactor was left for a length of time without cooling water. As a result the nuclear fuel was damaged, and the core partially melted. The removal of the decay heat is a significant reactor safety concern, especially shortly after shutdown. Failure to remove decay heat may cause the reactor core temperature to rise to dangerous levels and has caused nuclear accidents. The heat removal is usually achieved through several redundant and diverse systems, and the heat is often dissipated to an 'ultimate heat sink' which has a large capacity and requires no active power, though this method is typically used after decay heat has reduced to a very small value. However, the main cause of release of radioactivity in the Three Mile Island accident was a pilot-operated relief valve on the primary loop which stuck in the open position. This caused the overflow tank into which it drained to rupture and release large amounts of radioactive cooling water into the containment building.


Transport accidents can cause a release of radioactivity resulting in contamination or shielding to be damaged resulting in direct irradiation. In Cochabamba a defective gamma radiography set was transported in a passenger bus as cargo. The gamma source was outside the shielding, and it irradiated some bus passengers.

In the United Kingdom, it was revealed in a court case that in March 2002 a radiotherapy source was transported from Leeds to Sellafield with defective shielding. The shielding had a gap on the underside. It is thought that no human has been seriously harmed by the escaping radiation.

Equipment failure

Equipment failure is one possible type of accident, recently at Białystok in Poland the electronics associated with a particle accelerator used for the treatment of cancer suffered a malfunction. This then led to the overexposure of at least one patient. While the initial failure was the simple failure of a semiconductor diode, it set in motion a series of events which led to a radiation injury.

A related cause of accidents is failure of control software, as in the cases involving the Therac-25 medical radiotherapy equipment: the elimination of a hardware safety interlock in a new design model exposed a previously undetected bug in the control software, which could lead to patients receiving massive overdoses under a specific set of conditions.

Human error

An assessment conducted by the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA) in France concluded that no amount of technical innovation can eliminate the risk of human-induced errors associated with the operation of nuclear power plants. Two types of mistakes were deemed most serious: errors committed during field operations, such as maintenance and testing, that can cause an accident; and human errors made during small accidents that cascade to complete failure.

In 1946 Canadian Manhattan Project physicist Louis Slotin performed a risky experiment known as "tickling the dragon's tail" which involved two hemispheres of neutron-reflective beryllium being brought together around a plutonium core to bring it to criticality. Against operating procedures, the hemispheres were separated only by a screwdriver. The screwdriver slipped and set off a chain reaction criticality accident filling the room with harmful radiation and a flash of blue light (caused by excited, ionized air particles returning to their unexcited states). Slotin reflexively separated the hemispheres in reaction to the heat flash and blue light, preventing further irradiation of several co-workers present in the room. However Slotin absorbed a lethal dose of the radiation and died nine days afterwards.

Lost source

Lost source accidents, also referred to as an orphan source are incidents in which a radioactive source is lost, stolen or abandoned. The source then might cause harm to humans. For example, in 1996 sources were left behind by the Soviet army in Lilo, Georgia. Another case occurred at Yanango where a radiography source was lost, also at Samut Prakarn a cobalt-60 teletherapy source was lost and at Gilan in Iran a radiography source harmed a welder. The best known example of this type of event is the Goiânia accident which occurred in Brazil.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has provided guides for scrap metal collectors on what a sealed source might look like. The scrap metal industry is the one where lost sources are most likely to be found.


Some accidents defy classification. These accidents happen when the unexpected occurs with a radioactive source. For instance if a bird were to grab a radioactive source containing radium from a window sill and then fly away with it, return to its nest and then die shortly afterwards from direct irradiation then a minor radiation accident would have occurred. As the hypothetical act of placing the source on a window sill by a human permitted the bird access to the source, it is unclear how such an event should be classified, as a lost source event or a something else. Radium lost and found describes a tale of a pig walking about with a radium source inside; this was a radium source lost from a hospital. There are also accidents which are "normal" industrial accidents that involve radioactive material. For instance a runaway reaction at Tomsk involving red oil caused radioactive material to be spread around the site.

For a list of many of the most important accidents see the International Atomic Energy Agency site.

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