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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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The 10 Worst Energy-Related Disasters Of Modern Times

The 10 Worst Energy-Related Disasters Of Modern Times

Producing energy to power the modern global economy is a dirty and dangerous business.

Drilling for oil several miles below the surface of the sea involves staggering engineering challenges. Bringing up coal from deep underground puts miners’ lives at risk. Nuclear energy catastrophes, though rare, can lead to hellish, unlivable zones. And Mother Nature’s wrath can wreak havoc by knocking energy supplies offline.

Below is a list of 10 massive disasters that were either a result of something gone terribly wrong during energy production, or that resulted in millions of people losing access to energy.

Related: BP May Owe Anglers $585 Million After Oil Spill

1. Hurricane Katrina (2005). The damage caused by Hurricane Katrina made it the costliest storm in American history. At least 1,833 people died. The storm knocked 95 percent of the Gulf Coast’s oil production offline; In total, some 113 oil platforms were destroyed, 457 pipelines damaged, and at least 741,000 gallons of oil were spilled.

2. Fukushima (2011). The March 11, 2011 tsunami was unprecedented in Japanese history. The tsunami left 15,000 to 20,000 people dead or missing. It also destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, triggering explosions and the meltdown of three of the plant’s six reactors. In aftermath of the disaster, Japan shuttered 48 nuclear reactors, which amounted to nearly one-fifth of the country’s electricity capacity. The country is still struggling to make up for the lost power.

3. BP Deepwater Horizon (2010). The fiery explosion of the Macondo well and offshore oil rig owned by BP left 11 people dead and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. BP is still paying costs related to the catastrophe, which could total $42.5 billion. As a result of the disaster, then Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar issued a six-month oil drilling moratorium on the entire Gulf. The devastating environmental impact is still being evaluated.

4. Chernobyl (1986). The 1986 nuclear meltdown of the Chernobyl power plant -- in what was then the Soviet Union and is now Ukraine -- was the worst commercial nuclear incident in history. The explosion released radioactive material that blew over much of Eastern Europe. Some 32 people died directly from the incident, and thousands have suffered health problems believed to be caused by the meltdown. As of 2002, more than 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer  had been documented in children who lived near the disaster zone, with most cases linked to exposure to radioactivity.

5. Burning Kuwait Oil Fields (1991). During the 1990-91 Gulf War, retreating Iraqi troops set fire to Kuwaiti oil fields as part of Saddam Hussein’s strategy to slow down advancing American troops. A total of 605 to 732 oil wells were set on fire, which caused an environmental nightmare and respiratory problems in people living throughout the region. An estimated 4 to 6 million barrels of oil burned per day for a period of months. Thick black smoke was visible from space as fires raged.

6. Farmington Mine Disaster, WV (1968). An explosion at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, West Virginia on Nov. 20, 1968 was a seminal event for the U.S. coal industry. There were 99 miners inside mine when it exploded, and 21 escaped. Efforts to reach the remaining 78 miners were unsuccessful, and when all hope was lost, the mine was sealed to extinguish raging fires and prevent more explosions. While not the worst coal disaster in U.S. history, it led to major changes for miner safety, including the passage of the Federal Coal Miner Safety and Health Act of 1969, which put in place greater worker safety standards and required mine inspections.

7. India Power Blackout (2012). During the height of summer, the largest power blackout in history struck India. An estimated 670 million people – a staggering 10 percent of the world's population – were without power for about two days. Indian officials struggled to identify a single cause in the immediate aftermath. A combination of factors, including poor infrastructure, high demand, and mismanagement of electricity flows all contributed to the blackout, which stretched for 2,000 miles.

Related: Halliburton Agrees To Pay $1.1 Billion To Avoid Future Claims

8. Benxi Coal Mining Explosion (1942). An explosion at a coal mine near Benxi in China’s northwest province of Liaoning in 1942 left more than 1,549 people dead. Mining conditions in Japanese-occupied China were horrendous, and workers suffered from disease, lack of food, and were  brutalized by Japanese guards. Coal mining continues to be a highly deadly industry in China today, but the Benxi disaster stands out as the worst in coal mining history.

9. Exxon Valdez (1989). An Exxon oil tanker crashed into Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989 and unleashed 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound. Wildlife in the surrounding area was severely impacted -- oil-covered dead birds, fish, and mammals washed ashore. The incident spurred action by the U.S. Congress, which passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 the following year.


10. Lac-Megantic Train Explosion (2013). A train carrying crude oil derailed on July 6, 2013 in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec in Canada’s worst rail accident in more than a century.  Train cars carrying crude broke free from their locomotive, rolled down hill and derailed, causing six massive explosions that killed 47 people.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • g Sachs on October 05 2014 said:
  • Tim Bilsky on October 06 2014 said:
    I was thinking of the Union Carbide incident of the 1980's. I argue that loss of human life is much more devastating than that - while still saddening - of non-human life, so I would put those disasters ahead of ones like oil spills.

    Regarding no. 8 on this list, what has changed from then to now in Chinese mining? They lose thousands of lives every year because they view humanity as expendable in comparison to the country's value of energy production. It is not unexpected in a country that gave us the one-child policy.
  • Guy on October 14 2014 said:
    Missing some big ones:
    1957 Reactor Fire in England:

    1947 Texas City Detention:

    1975 Chinese Dam breaches (171K dead)
  • abc.rover on October 21 2014 said:
    @g sachs and Tim Bilsky.
    Bhopal was not an energy related accident. But of course coal mining in several especially emerging countries cost numerous lives.
    @ guy
    Windscale was not an energy producing entity, but a weapons factory.
    Texas city was a fertilizer shipment. Not really energy related.
    The Chinese dam disaster should definitely have been on the list.

Leave a comment

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