Disasters in Hindsight

The world has experienced uncountable number of disasters which have claimed many lives and losses. These disasters range from those resulting from human sources to those resulting from natural sources .Although disasters are unfortunate incidences, they have helped us in learning from the past experiences and helping us in putting in place adequate preventive and safety measure that ensure such incidences do not occur in the future. Bhopal chemical disaster stands out as one of the worst disaster in history that is claimed to have been caused by human operators who failed to pay attention to safety procedures. Many lives were lost following the Bhopal chemical disaster in India. Another manmade disaster in history involves Chernobyl nuclear disaster which is said to be the worst nuclear accident in history. This disaster claimed about thirty lives within a period of few weeks and also many more lives were endangered by the radioactive materials that were released during the accident. These two disasters seem to have been caused by negligence, flawed system designs and operation systems that were not properly maintained.  This paper tries to look into Chernobyl nuclear disaster and Bophal chemical disaster. It also tries to develop an insight how and why these incidents happened and the lessons learnt that will help in preventing similar incidences in the future.

Disaster in hindsight

A disaster is a great disruption of a community set up and functioning that brings about extensive human, property and environmental losses .This exceeds the capacity of the affected community to contain the destruction using its own resources and eventually causes alarm for external assistance.  This incident is brought about by accidents, natural causes, or by man himself and  comes with an implication of  serious damage to records and facilities which is a sudden threat to personal safety  by causing injury, poor health and death and major disruption of  normal vital operations in the society (Quarantell 1998). Disasters usually come unexpectedly and frequently cause a permanent change to the natural set of things. It has also been noted that this disastrous phenomena occur abruptly or rather suddenly living a great lamentuous situation among the affected .Disasters are inevitable but can sometimes be avoided or if they must occur, the human community can always look effective ways of reducing the worst effects of the same. Disasters in the hindsight are those that will enable one to understand the reasons behind their happening after they occurred and what should have been done there after to prevent the same (Quarantell 1998).

Disasters are classified as either manmade or natural. Natural disasters are caused by natural factors which humans have no control over them. They can only study their causes and scientifically monitor when they are about to occur in order to take precaution. Examples of these are the earth quakes, bush fires, floods, tsunamis and others. Manmade disasters can be avoided if those operating in their sources are keen enough when carrying out their operations. If one is working in an industry, they should handle the chemicals in a way that they will not cause any nasty reactions. The management should also ensure quality equipment and working conditions that are not hazardous to the environment.


Background of Bhopal chemical disaster

This incident happened in 1984 when at least forty tons methyl isocynate (MIC) gas was leaked from union carbide corporation pesticide plant in Bhopal (India). The company was built in Bhopal because of efficient access to infrastructural facilities from this point. The site for this industry also raises questions on safety because the location where it was put up was meant for light industries and not industries that handle hazardous materials like MIC (Methyl isocyanate). This company initially was meant  to formulate imported materials for instance MIC in small amounts to make pesticides but as a result of increasing pressure from competitors they started manufacturing raw materials and at the same time formulating the pesticides, a process that was complex and sophisticated (Sharma 2005).

It is said that in 1984 this company was manufacturing Sevin at a quarter of its production capacity. This was attributed to widespread crop failures and famine that had decreased the demand for pesticides by farmers in India.  This deceased demand led the company to make a decision of closing down the industry and preparing for its sale due to its decreasing profitability. It is said that when the management of the company saw that a prospective buyer was not imminent, they decided to dismantle key production units from this industry and ship them to another developing country where the demand for pesticides was high. While this was being planned, this industry continued to run with safety equipments and procedures that were far much below compared to the sister company operating in West Virginia.  Investigation into this incident indicate that the local authority was well aware that the company was beaching safety procedures and regulations but it failed to act because they feared they will further increase the burden on the struggling company which they thought would hurt the economy considering the fact that it was a large employer (Sharma 2005).

How the Bhopal chemical accident happened

The incident is said to have started at night in December 1984 when most residents of Bhopal were sleeping.  one employer of this company noticed a small leak of MIC gas. The pressure of the gas inside the storage tank was also increasing.  A safety device known as vent gas scrubber that is employed in neutralizing toxic MIC discharge from the system had not been in operational for weeks prior to the incident. It is claimed that a fault vent had allowed about one tone of water that is meant to clean internal pipes to mix with about forty tons of MIC gas (Sharma 2005).

A refrigeration unit that serves as a safety tool in cooling the storage tank for MIC was not working because its coolants had been drained for use in another part of the plant. Because of this, the exothermic reaction between water and MIC gas made pressure and heat in the storage tank to increase rapidly. This could not be controlled in any way because even the flare gas safety system had been switched off three months before the incident. Therefore the increasing pressure caused the safety valve to give way consequently releasing the highly toxic MIC gas into the air. What followed was a disturbing scene of corpses of human beings and carcasses of animals littered everywhere (Dhara, 2002).

Damage caused by the accident

It was reported by the Indian government that more than a half a million people were exposed to this toxic gas. According to several epidemiological studies that were conducted following this disaster, it was found out that the exposed population was characterized by high mortality and morbidity rates. This disaster is said to have immediately caused the lives of more than 3800 people. It is also claimed to have caused premature death and morbidity to other thousands of people (Dhara 2002).

Analysis of Bhopal disaster

Bophal disaster stands as one of the worst chemical disaster that has ever happened in history. This disaster was caused by a gas leak that resulted from a number of causes. Records indicate that nearly two thousand people were killed in this tragedy. Investigation indicates that this tragedy might have been caused by a combination of several factors. Operating errors by technicians, failure to carry out proper maintenance, improper training and economy strategy that failed to look into safety measures. The destruction caused by tragedy is also said to have been made worse by the company resorting to use hazardous chemicals (MIC). The company had also resorted to store these dangerous chemicals in large tanks instead of using small tanks (Sharma 2005),  

Negligence and poor maintenance seem to have played a key role in causing this chemical disaster.  They failed to look into the issue of corrosive material in the pipes and they never changed them often. Investigations have shown that the company failed to carry out proper maintenance procedures in its systems after it ceased production in the early 1980s. Therefore lack of proper maintenance caused several safety systems to stop working. In order to cut expenses and increase profit the company had resolved to shut down various safety system therefore increasing the chances of a chemical accident occurring. For instance the MIC refrigeration tank was shut down, a safety procedure which alone could have prevented this accident from occurring (Sharma 2005).

Investigation reports that were released after the tragedy indicated further negligence by the company to carryout proper maintenance in its systems.  The valves on the tank were found to be malfunctioning. The company did not admit that its safety and maintenance procedures were enough to prevent this unfortunate incident from occurring. Experts argue that if the company had given attention to safety and maintenance systems the accident could have been prevented. For instance the storage tank was designed to prevent large amounts of water from inadvertently being introduced into the system, but this safety precaution had been shut down.  Therefore if the safety systems were operation, water could have been prevented from accidentally entering into the tank (Sharma 2005). But contrary to these arguments, the mother company, united carbide corporation (UCC) has always maintained that the incident was caused by sabotage by one of its employees and not operation or design faulty.  It even distanced itself from its Indian subsidiary, United Carbide India limited by claiming that the plant was fully built and operated by the Indian subsidiary (Union Carbide Bhopal Information Center 2010).

Even after the incident, UCC failed to ensure that residents of Bhopal are protected from dangerous emissions from the industry. After closure of the Indian subsidiary, the plant failed to clean this industrial site appropriately and the industry continued to release dangerous chemicals and heavy metals into the environment therefore further endangering the residents of Bhopal (Dhara 2002).   

Lessons learnt from Bhopal chemical disaster

Several lessons that could help in preventing such future disasters were learnt following this incident. For instance, from this catastrophic event it became evident that expansion of industrialization in developing countries needs to be accompanied with increased safety regulations (Dhara 2002)

From this disaster it also became apparent that enforcing international operating regulations that are uniform would have played an indispensable role in preventing the Bhopal disaster. To prevent incidents like Bhopal chemical disaster from occurring in the future, it also became clear that international standards need to put in place norms that will provide models of monitoring performance of companies that engage hazardous activities for instance manufacturing pesticides and other chemicals that are toxic(Union Carbide Bhopal Information Center  2010). 

To prevent incidents like the Bhopal chemical tragedy, it is inevitable for national governments and international organization to pay proper attention in designing applicable safety practices for corporate responsibility and accident prevention as much as they do in advanced industrial countries.   Industries dealing with toxic substances should be prudently located in areas where they are likely to cause minimum harm if any in times of accidents.  United carbide limited India (UCLI) was located in an area that was meant for light industries dealing with non toxic substances. Disaster prevention should also effectively incorporate elements of proper design and safety legislation (Sharma 2005).

The local government in Bhopal failed to ensure safety of the residents even when they knew that they were exposed to danger. This is a good lesson to local governments to ensure that industries especially those handling toxic substances are not situated near urban centers or populated areas. If this precaution had been taken, the death toll from this chemical accident would have been very minimal. The public health systems and emergence response units were poorly prepared in handling a disaster of such magnitude. When designing and building hazardous industries, public health infrastructure need to be taken into consideration especially when selecting a site for manufacturing plants that deal with hazardous substances (Sharma  2005).  

This disaster is said to have increased environmental awareness and the magnitude of destruction that chemical disasters are capable of causing if safety measures are not taken into account. The government through the ministry of environment has passed environmental policies and laws that are meant to integrate environmental safety procedures to all industrial plans in the country. The Bhopal disaster is said to have greatly changed the nature of chemical industries and the necessity to produce such dangerous chemicals in the first place.  Other chemical companies have learnt from the Bhopal disaster and have changed their operation procedures to ensure safety (Dhara 2002).


Background of Chernobyl nuclear accident

This disaster also stands as one of the worst disasters in hindsight that is said to have been caused by faulty equipment designs. This nuclear accident happened in 1986 in Ukraine and is said to have been caused by poor designs of  nuclear reactors that were being operated by personnel who were not adequately trained. The steam explosions and fire that followed caused at least 5% of the radioactive core to be released into the atmosphere and downwind. This accident caused instant death to two Chernobyl workers at the night of the accident. 28 people further succumbed to the acute radiation poisoning within few weeks (The chernobyl.info website 2010).

How the Chernobyl nuclear accident happened

This nuclear accident is greatly attributed to flawed nuclear reactor designs. Just like the Bhopal chemical accident, this accident is also said to have been greatly contributed by fatal mistakes made by plant operators. It has been argued that cold war isolation and the consequent lack of a culture of safety as one of the possibilities that led to this unfortunate nuclear accident (World Health Organization 2006).

The design features of the RBMK reactors and s a series of operator actions are said to have put the reactor in unstable condition. The design of these reactors did not have a containment shell that plays a critical function of containing radioactive materials and preventing them from spreading into the atmosphere in case of an accident.

These reactors operated using carbon moderator which easily catches fire in case of an accident as it did in Chernobyl nuclear accident. Western countries usually use water as moderators in their nuclear plants.  The chief source of this accident is said to have resulted from making an experiment with the reactor and disabling safety features in the process. Just like the Bhopal chemical disaster, the installed safety systems could have stopped the accident from occurring if they were not disabled. Investigation into the accident indicated that the operator pulled out the control rod to prevent the reactor from shutting down as a result of xenon poisoning. This caused the nuclear reaction to increase by many fold than what the nuclear reactor was designed to contain (International Atomic Energy Agency 2006).

The reaction between cooling water and very hot fuel resulted in production of large amounts of steam and fuel fragmentation. This led to elevated pressure in the system which caused the 1000 ton cover plate to be partially detached consequently causing the rapture of all fuel channels and jamming all the control rods which by that time were only halfway. The intense steam generation that followed spread all over the core leading to a steam explosion as a result of the rupture of  the emergency cooling system that was accompanied by release of fission products into the atmosphere killing two workers instantly. This led to a second explosion that forced out fragments of fuel channels and hot graphite (carbon).  The two became incandescent and started a number of fires that led to the release of main radioactive elements into the atmosphere. It has been estimated that a total of about 14 EBq (14 x 1018 Bq) of radioactivity was released. Most of this radioactive materials were deposited close by as dust and debris. The lighter materials were carried by wind over Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Researches that have been carried by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus indicate that this nuclear accident affected more than one million people (International Atomic Energy Agency 2006).

Damage caused by the accident

This accident led to loss of lives and destruction of property. During this incident four Chernobyl reactors were completely destroyed. In addition to causing death of two individuals instantly, the resulting Acute Radioactive syndrome (ARP) was diagnosed in about 237 individuals on-site. 28 of these individuals are said to have succumbed to this syndrome within a period of few weeks after the accident (World Health Organization 2006).  

Although this accident is said to have caused no acute radioactive effects off-site, studies have indicated that there is a correlation between increased incidents of high proportion of childhood thyroid cancer and the radioactive elements released following the accident.  This has been attributed to the consumption of radioactive iodine.  This accident led to a wide spread radioactive contamination in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia and even in areas beyond this. Chernobyl nuclear accident stands out for its uniqueness in history. It said to be the only nuclear accident in which fatalities occurred (World Health Organization 2006). 

The radioactive materials are said to have spread into many parts of Europe consequently causing more plants and animals to be radioactive than the levels required for human consumption.  Although there have been no reported incidents of illness outside the soviet following this radioactive leak, the world health organization has argued that there might be increase in cancer incident s but this cannot be easily correlated to the Chernobyl nuclear accident because of large number of cancers from other sources (World Health Organization 2006).

Like the Bhopal chemical disaster in India, the Chernobyl nuclear accident had far reaching implications on the economy of the former Soviet. This accident cost the former Soviet hundred billions of dollars and some have even argued that it was one of the factors that accelerated the collapse of the Soviet government. The accident is estimated at 325 billion dollars for 30 years.  This disaster greatly damaged Belarusian agricultural sector which is estimated to be over 700 million dollars annually (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) 2000).   

This accident had a huge impact to the environment.  Investigations into this accident indicate that the radioactive materials released contaminated the soil which in turn transferred the radioactive elements to crops that people rely on for food.  It has been suggested that regions in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia will remain contaminated decades (International Atomic Energy Agency 2006)

Lessons learnt from Chernobyl disaster  

Chernobyl just like the Bhopal chemical disaster emphasized the need of putting in place working and safe operation systems. This accident is said to have had a great impact on later design of nuclear reactors and operating procedures. The lessons learned from this nuclear accident have applied in western nuclear plants to enhance safety of their systems.  Following this accident, the safety of soviet nuclear reactors has increased immensely.  This has been due to the culture of safety that has been developed as a result of collaboration between the West and East. Large amounts of resources are now being invested in designing safe reactors and in enhancing safe operation procedures. This is meant to ensure that such accidents do not happen in the future (International Atomic Energy Agency 2006).

Also various modifications have been made to original soviet designs of nuclear reactors that are still in operation. Safety features have been added or improved to prevent similar incidents. All RBMK reactors that are still operational have modified to include more safety features for instance  safe control rods, neuron absorbers and increased fuel enrichment have been incorporated therefore making the reactors  much more stable at low power. Other modifications to enhance safety on these reactors are seen in automatic shutdown systems that are now operating faster. A repetition of Chernobyl nuclear accident is increasingly becoming impossible because nuclear reactors are now installed with automatic inspection equipment that is able to diagnose any fault in the system (The chernobyl.info website 2010).

Following the Chernobyl nuclear accident, many international programs that are meant to look into safety of nuclear plants have been initiated. For instance the international atomic energy agency watchdog was formed (IAEA). This agency in particular carried out safety review projects of each soviet reactor to ensure improved safety procedures. This agency has been playing an indispensable role in ensuring that that nuclear plants are located in safe locations and safety procedures are upheld to the highest levels (The chernobyl.info website 2010)   


Disasters whether natural or manmade have been the leading cause of death in the world. Proper attention needs to be paid especially in preventing manmade disasters from happening. As already seen, both Chernobyl nuclear accident and Bhopal chemical accident were caused by human errors.The Bhopal disaster was caused by negligence in maintaining operation systems and shutting down safety systems which could have prevented the accident if they were operational. Also the Chernobyl was caused by poorly designed reactors and human operators that were not properly trained. The operators failed to ensure safety systems were operational. It has also been argued that if these safety systems were operation the disaster could have been prevented. Lessons learnt from these two disasters have helped in putting down effective safety strategies that are meant to prevent similar accidents in the future.  

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