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World's Worst Energy Disasters


Societies need to tap into fossil fuels, water, wind, and solar power in order to keep the lights on and engines running. But with any energy production comes some risk. Here are the most deadly mishaps.

Banqiao Dam

Built during Mao's Great Leap Forward, the clay dam meant to control flooding and generate power was completed on the Ru River in 1952. Soviet engineers vowed that the dam would be unbreakable, and hydrologists who pointed out faults in the design were distanced from the project. In an especially rainy August, 1975, the dam broke and sent a wave of water as high as 20 feet into the plains at a speed of some 30 mph. Entire communes were wiped out as the communication mechanism didn't exist to evacuate all areas when engineers knew the dam was failing. Because of the control of the communist government it's difficult to ascertain an accurate death toll, but estimates range between 90,000 and 230,000, with millions displaced or otherwise affected. Another 145,000 died in famine and epidemics after the flood. Nearly 6 million buildings were brought down by the waters.

Benxihu Colliery

This iron and coal mine started under dual Chinese and Japanese control in 1905, but the mine was in territory invaded by the Japanese and became a mine using Japanese forced labor. On April 26, 1942, a coal-dust explosion -- a prevalent hazard in underground mines -- killed a full third of the workers on duty at the time: 1,549 dead. A frenzied effort to cut off the ventilation and seal the mine to kill the fire reportedly left many unevacuated workers who initially survived the blast to suffocate to death. It took 10 days to remove the bodies -- 31 Japanese, the rest Chinese -- and they were buried in a mass grave. Tragedy struck China again when 682 died on May 9, 1960, in the Laobaidong colliery coal dust explosion.


(Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
On April 26, 1986, an explosion and fire at the Soviet Chernobyl plant, located in what is now Ukraine, released large amounts of nuclear fallout and is considered the worst nuclear power disaster ever, spreading 400 times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima bombing. About 135,000 were evacuated from the area, and an exclusion zone remains around Chernobyl today. The meltdown in reactor No. 4 killed up to 50 emergency workers from radiation poisoning. Thousands more died in the years after, though, mainly of thyroid cancer. Studies have also blamed tens of thousands more cancer deaths outside the Chernobyl area on the disaster -- fallout was detected as far away as Canada.

Courrières mine disaster

A coal-dust explosion ripped through this mine in Northern France on March 10, 1906. At least two-thirds of the miners working at the time were killed: 1,099 died, including many children. Many of those who survived suffered burns or were sickened by the gases. One group of 13 survivors lived for 20 days underground; three of those survivors were under age 18. The mine accident sparked strikes from the angry public, those the exact cause of what ignited the coal dust was never discovered. It remains the worst mining disaster in Europe's history.

Japan coal mining disasters

On Dec. 15, 1914, a gas explosion at the Mitsubishi Hojyo coal mine in Kyūshū, Japan, killed 687, making it the deadliest mine accident in Japan's history. But this country would see its share of more tragedy down below. On Nov. 9, 1963, 458 miners were killed in the Mitsui Miike coal mine in Omuta, Japan, 438 of those from carbon monoxide poisoning. This, the largest coal mine in the country, didn't cease operation until 1997.
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