The World’s Most Interesting Nuclear Sites


Enrico Fermi set the groundwork for nuclear power back in the 1930s. By the 1940s we had all the horrible evidence we needed of the awesome power that splitting an atom can produce. Today there are almost 14,000 nuclear warheads in the world, down from an all-time high of over 70,000 in the 1980s. Around the world there are 440 nuclear reactors operating in 30 different countries. There have also been multiple major nuclear accidents in history. With all that going on, it’s no wonder there are quite a number of interesting nuclear sites out there.

10. Chernobyl

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant may be the most famous nuclear site and accidents in history. located near a town called Pripyat in the north of Ukraine, the plant exploded on April 26, 1986.

An excessive amount of steam built up after plant operators shut off safety systems that prevent proper cooling against regulation. Power surged in a reactor and they couldn’t shut it down.

Two workers died in the initial explosion, but many more would die in the coming days exposed to high levels of radiation. It took 10 days to get the fire put out and the work of 250 firefighters. The nearby town of Pripyat was not evacuated until 36 hours later, but by that point many residents were already showing signs of acute radiation poisoning.

Twenty-eight Chernobyl workers died within the first four months after the accident. Many of these workers willingly exposed themselves to radiation, knowing full well what would happen as they attempted to fix the problem. By 2015 there was evidence that as many as 20,000 people who were still children when the plant exploded had come down with thyroid conditions. 

Currently, the area around Chernobyl is still heavily irradiated. They sealed the reactor in a concrete sarcophagus which they reinforced in the year 2017. There’s a 1,000 square mile Exclusion Zone around the plant in which no unauthorized personnel are supposed to enter, although many people returned to their homes, and they still allow tourists to go. 

9. World’s Largest Plant

With over 400 nuclear plants in the world, it should come as no surprise that they’re not all built the same way and some are larger than others. The largest plant in the world, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power station, is located in Japan.The plant features seven reactors and generates 8,212 megawatts of power. That provides electricity to 16 million homes.

An earthquake hit the plant in 2007, but officials determined that no significant damage took place. Three years earlier a 6.9 earthquake struck the area, and the reactors continued working the entire time, with only one shutting down later when an aftershock tripped an alert briefly. Four stories of the plant’s foundation are fixed under water into bedrock and sand to help reinforce the structure. This is because Japan sits on four tectonic plates and is extremely earthquake prone.

8. Oldest Plants

In December 2019, Florida Power & Light Company made a request to the federal government to keep two nuclear reactors in operation for another 20 years past the end of their license. They were granted permission, which would mean the Turkey Point nuclear power plants would be the oldest operating nuclear plant in the world by the time its license ended. In fact, the two reactors at the site would be 80 years old.

There has been some concern that the government is interested in extending the lifespan of nuclear plants that were never meant to operate for so long, especially under such harsh conditions. Around the world, most other countries are scaling back nuclear power in favor of more renewable and safe energy sources. 

Experts pointed out that the older a nuclear plant gets, the less safe it becomes. Even the safety features inside of it become brittle from years of nuclear bombardment, and if something goes wrong, it can be harder to contain the problem the older the plant gets. 

7. Natural Reactor

Although a lot of thought and technology went into the creation of nuclear power plants, the basic idea is not one that relies on technology. In fact, if you head to Gabon in Western Africa, you can find the site of 17 natural nuclear fission reactors. These formed spontaneously, two billion years ago, and produced enough power to light up 1,000 light bulbs.

These natural reactors were likely producing power for upwards of one million years, and nuclear byproducts were safely contained at the sites as well. This had some significant repercussions for us in the modern age, as it proves that geological storage is something that can happen safely and securely.

The natural reactors produce nuclear reactions in a nearly identical way to man-made reactors. Uranium atoms break apart releasing energy which was slowed down by the presence of water in a way that maintained the reaction for extended periods.

6. The Polygon

Aside from having a cool, mysterious nickname, the Polygon also has a terrifying and dangerous history. Covering an 18,500 square kilometer chunk of land in Kazakhstan, the testing grounds known as the Polygon is where the Soviet Union tested their nuclear weapons program.

Between 1949 and 1963, the Soviets conducted 110 above-ground nuclear tests in this area. As horrifying as that sounds, it becomes even worse when you realize this was a populated area. Kazakhstan officials believe about 1.5 million people were exposed to fallout in the area. And this doesn’t take into account the underground testing, which continued until 1989.

Research on the health of the people who lived in the area during the testing, as well as their children and grandchildren, has shown patterns of cancer as well as some preliminary evidence that cardiovascular health might suffer and be passed down genetically.

At least one test at the Polygon, conducted in 1953, dropped a nuclear bomb that was 25 times more powerful than the one exploded at Hiroshima. None of the residents in the area were warned that tests were happening or evacuated to prevent exposure. 

When Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union, officials from Moscow removed medical records from the area.

5. Marshall Islands

While most people are likely to list Chernobyl at the top of the places they wouldn’t want to visit for a fear of being exposed to radiation, the Marshall Islands is a place that you definitely don’t want to get anywhere near. Over 60 years later, the site where the United States tested their nuclear weapons is still about 10 times more radioactive than Chernobyl.

The first bomb detonated at the Marshall Islands was set off July 25, 1946 on the Bikini Atoll. Five years later they tested the first hydrogen bomb there. Three years after that, they tested a bomb 1,000 times more powerful than the one that detonated over Hiroshima.

Sixty-seven different nuclear weapons were tested in the Marshall Islands, and the devastation is visible from space. One of the islands features something called the Dome, which is a giant crater filled with 85,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste covered in concrete. If sea levels continue to rise, the area will flood and radioactive waste will probably escape.

4. Goiânia, Brazil

One of the most bizarre and dangerous nuclear incidents in history took place in Goiânia, Brazil and most people have never heard of it before. There was no nuclear reactor in Goiânia, nor was there a weapon tested there. And waste wasn’t stored there, either. But there was a hospital, and they had abandoned it.

In 1987, scavengers entered the abandoned hospital in town and discovered an old teletherapy unit used for cancer treatment. The machine had a cesium-137 nuclear core, which nobody realized. Thieves took the old unit and began to disassemble it in the hopes of selling it for scrap metal. They released the radioactive core and immediately exposed themselves to high levels of radiation. 

Because it glowed blue, one of the men was fascinated by it and shared it with friends and family. In total 112,000 people had been exposed to radiation and 249 had been hit with significant doses. Evidence of radiation was detected 100 miles away. One of the men who first discovered it got it so bad he had to have his arm amputated. 

They brought in experts from both the United States and the Soviet Union once officials determined that there was a radiation leak somewhere. Four people ended up dying from the exposure, and 40 homes had to be demolished because it irradiated the buildings themselves. Aside from the physical effects of radiation that thousands of others suffered, the entire town was shunned and the Brazilian government overhauled laws regarding storage of radioactive materials.

3. Hanford, Washington

If you were to look at old photos of Hanford, Washington, it would look like any other quaint little American town. That changed in the year 1943, when the war department told residents they needed to relocate because the Manhattan Project was moving in.

Hanford is where the United States produced plutonium for their nuclear weapons program during the Second World War. In 1947, the program picked up steam to meet the demands of the Cold War and continued all the way until 1987 when they finally closed down the reactor.

As a result of the processing and refining of nuclear materials on the site, the area around Hanford became something of a nuclear wasteland. Solid and liquid waste polluted the area, including the Columbia River. 

2. Yucca Mountain

The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository is unlike any other nuclear site in the world because it’s not actually a nuclear site at all. Despite the fact that the project was approved in the year 2002 and was funded all the way through 2011, there’s just short of nothing at the location now and no clear plan for anything to be developed there in the future, either.

Yucca Mountain was designed to be a storage facility for nuclear waste materials, including spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste. A five mile long tunnel was dug into the mountain and the plan was for the facility to be able to store 77,000 metric tons of waste in 40 miles worth of tunnel.

The US government invested about $9 billion in geological surveys and other research into the area. They halted all work in 2009 when the Obama Administration began the process of closing it down. Although the Trump Administration requested funding to begin licensing activity on the site again, the Senate refused the proposal and it went nowhere. The facility is nothing more than a boarded-up tunnel today.

1. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Nuclear power produces nuclear waste.  This is one of the big drawbacks to nuclear power, which is otherwise not as dangerous to the environment as burning fossil fuels. The problem with high level nuclear waste is it stays radioactive for just shy of forever. It needs to be safely stored for years. Other less dangerous waste is actually reprocessed back into nuclear plants, or can be stored safely until it becomes less dangerous. The radioactivity of quite a bit of nuclear fuel will decrease to one one-thousandth of the level it started at after 40 years in storage. 

So while nuclear waste can actually become easy to manage after several decades, the fact is it needs to be managed somewhere, and that’s where the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant comes in. Located deep in a salt formation in New Mexico, the site is licensed to hold spent nuclear waste from America’s nuclear weapons program for 10,000 years. 

The facility currently contains over 2.7 million cubic feet of nuclear waste. Sometime between 2025 and 2035, it’s set to be closed. The walls will be collapsed, and the idea is that salt and water will flood through the area, creating a natural tomb for the waste material.

Knowing that the facility needs to stay safe for 10,000 years, the government has worked with linguists and others to develop a warning system to keep future humans away from the site. A massive wall with pillars and warnings written in seven different languages will hopefully do the trick.

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