Radioactive elements are harmful to humans, animals, plants, and the environment alike. Radioactive elements such as plutonium and uranium are used to produce electricity and nuclear weapons. They are mined, enriched, harnessed, and then disposed of, making them lethal to living things and the environment as soon as they leave their mining ground deep below the earth's surface. Below are the ten most radioactive places on earth, listed in no particular order.
In 2011, a 9-9.1 magnitude earthquake hit the Pacific coast of Japan causing a tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant. The plant had been set to automatically shut down in the case of such an event, but the generator that was supposed to provide power to cool down the reactors failed to power up leading to a nuclear meltdown. Hydrogen-air exploded, causing a fire, and three active reactors leaked radioactive material. Several events followed after that including a spill over by the pool used to store contaminated wastewater. The spill over led to the contamination of the Pacific coast of Fukushima. The nuclear plant was completely shut down, but massive amount of radioactive waste still spills to the environment. It is estimated that it will take four decades to decommission the power plant completely.
The Polygon, Kazakhstan
The Polygon in modern day Kazakhstan was used by the Soviet Union as a test site for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. It is estimated that up to 400 nuclear weapons were tested in the area. The area had been considered uninhabitable although more than half a million people have lived in the area. It is estimated that more than 200,000 people are still suffering from the adverse effects of being exposed to radioactivity. The area has been abandoned, and no visitors are allowed.
In April 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was engulfed in a massive fire after a malfunction during a safety check. The deliberate shutdown of safety systems, flaws in the design of the reactor and misarranged reactor cores led to overheating that generated uncontrolled steam and an open air graphite fire that sent radioactive fumes to the atmosphere. Six million people were exposed, and $18 billion was used to control the damage. The area around the nuclear plant is still closed from public access.
In 1943 the US was racing to produce a weapon destructive enough to stop Adolf Hitler from overrunning Europe. Scientist rushed to developed a nuclear weapon in a project referred to as the Manhattan project. Hanford was chosen to house a plant that would provide enriched plutonium and allow the manufacture of nuclear bombs. Hanford produces massive amount of the radioactive elements to make 60,000 bombs, but the process led to a large amount of radioactive. Although the US government has tried to contain the environmental effect of the waste, the area is still radioactive and has been linked to a large number of cancer cases in the nearby towns.
Siberian Chemical Combine, Russia
The Siberian Chemical Combine plant was used to enrich uranium and plutonium before it was transformed into a storage facility for toxic chemical and radioactive waste. Today millions of liters of radioactive liquid lie uncovered in pools while approximately 113,000 metric tons of solid of radioactive waste are stored in leaking containers.
Unlike the Polygon that was used as a testing site for nuclear weapons, Mailuu-Suu was rich in uranium which prompted the Soviet Union to set up a mining facility in the area. The area was heavily mined while toxic waste was buried in the excavated areas. However, the excavation and disposal of the waste left a significant amount of radioactive elements above the ground. The region is also known to experience earth tremors which expose the buried elements.
The Somali Coast
The Somali Coastline in Africa may seem like an odd place to find radioactive elements. There are no nuclear plants or weapons in Somalia or any of its neighboring countries. However, in the 1980s the government's inability to monitor activities along its coastline and the need to dispose of nuclear waste by Swiss and Italian companies led to massive disposal of hazardous material in the Somali Coast. It is estimated that an Italian company sunk thirty ships loaded with nuclear waste in the Somalia's coastline.
In 1987, a robbery at an abandoned hospital led to the accidental exposure to radioactivity. Two men broke into the hospital to scavenge for scrap metal when they came across a cancer therapy device. They were attracted by a shining blue material which they carried along with the machine. Unaware that they were handling a radioactive element, they called family, friends, and neighbors to see the glowing object. They were all exposed to radioactivity that left four people dead and more than 250 admitted in hospital. The government stepped in to dispose of the radioactive material, but it had spread radioactive particles across large area.
Sellafield is UK’s equivalent of Hanford. A nuclear enrichment plant was built in the area to enrich plutonium. During its peak period, the plant released 8 million liters of radioactive waste water into the sea daily. In 1957, a huge fire ravaged the plant releasing radioactive fumes into the atmosphere. The incident earned its place as the worst nuclear accident in the United Kingdom’s history. A large number of marine mammals died due to the disposal of waste water into the sea while thousands of people suffered from respiratory problems as a result of inhaling the contaminated air.
Russia built a number of nuclear power plants in the region of Mayak during the cold war. A plant in the region suffered a Level 6 disaster on September 29, 1957 (to put this into perspective, Chernobyl is classified as a Level 7). The fatalities that resulted from the incident are still unknown to this day. Although radiation clean up was attempted, the area immediately surrounding the original disaster is still heavily contaminated.