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Bhopal disaster (wikipedia.org)
156 points by williamchangnpu on Oct 28, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 68 comments

It's really surprising that this and the Banqiao dam failure that killed 230,000 are fairly unknown to the west while Chernobyl is a household name, which killed ~60 first responders and "up to 4000" from early cancer deaths (using conservative linear no threshold models of dose response)


It´s not.

The USSR was responsible for Chernobyl disaster and with the cold war still running, it was a candy for the western media.

In case of the Bhopal disaster, an american owned company was to blame and happened in a non threathening third world country. No news for western media.

The case is well documented in relevant literature. For example, the System Safety books by Nancy Leveson

I also bring up that example quite frequently.

I believe that is because conceptually, radiation is such a foreign concept to people. Who can blame them, they only hear it in the context of danger (for example, when getting an x-ray) or catastrophe (Chernobyl). But they'll happily eat a banana.

The difference is that a dam disaster is fairly localized in both time and space and the damage is visible. When your feet are dry you're safe. With radiation, the area is poisoned for generations and the danger is invisible. You don't know whether eating that mushroom will lead to a birth defect in your next child.

That's probably part of it. Radiation is certainly a bit harder to detect with our human senses. Maybe if we put radiation detectors in every home and printed out XKCD dose effect charts people could make more risk-informed (as opposed to fear/uncertainty-informed) decisions.


Keep in mind that normal fossil fueled power plants are killing about 4.2 million people per year via air pollution, which is also largely invisible. I don't quite understand why radiation killing up to 4000 freaks people out so much more vs. air pollution killing 4.2 million/year.


Similarly, we have paid much more attention to the ~10s of deaths from the Fukushima nuclear disaster but somehow conveniently ignore the ~20,000 deaths from the tsunami that caused the disaster.

According to the HBO series on Chernobyl the Russians deliberately kept no statistics on radiation related illness and deaths related to the accident. They said estimates ranged from the number you quoted to upwards of 90 000 deaths. Thanks for telling us about the Banqiao dam failure I will read more about it.

HBO is not a great reference in this case. The teams of experts from the UN and WHO said "up to 4000" using conservative models after decades of study. One small Ukrainian team said 90,000, and that's the number HBO and Greenpeace use. Actually HBO said: "Between 4,000 and 90,000", which really pissed me off. The scientific consensus number is up to 4000.


The crazy thing is that even if it was 90,000, nuclear wouldn't change much in how safe it is relative to other energy sources. Again, Banqiao dam killed 230,000 and fossil kills 4,200,000 every single year from air pollution.

It's pretty hard to have scientific consensus when you don't have any reliable information to base it on.

It's certainly softer science than 1900s physics. There are a few big science-related questions that require practical approaches to that aren't 100% black and white. So consensus has to allow for a few more outlier positions than usual.

Interestingly, climate change and Chernobyl health effects have a lot of parallels. They've both been broadly studied by various teams of scientists. Society has turned to using large internationally-respected UN and WHO-organized group of experts to deal with the these kinds of questions. For Chernobyl, this group is called UNSCEAR [1]. For climate change it's called the IPCC [2].

[1] https://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/chernobyl.html [2] https://www.ipcc.ch/

In both Chernobyl and Climate change, there are people who passionately disagree with the international UN teams of scientists. In climate change, we call them climate-change deniers. In Chernobyl, we call them Greenpeace. In the name of the scientific method, it's worth listening to what these people have to say and testing some hypotheses. If the hypotheses turn out to be hard to support, we begin to move on with a mainstream consensus.

The odd thing is that these groups of people (climate change deniers and Greenpeace) have very little else in common.

The same happened after the Three Mile Island meltdown.

Huge amounts of radioactive krypton gas were "vented", and, being much heavier than air, it all ran downhill and pooled invisibly at the nearest dam where, conveniently, only poor people lived. No effort was expended to warn or evacuate them, or to catalog the deadly maladies they suffered in their thousands afterward.

To this day it is easy to find people insisting in all earnestness that TMI didn't kill anybody. They are never interested in discussing the gassing of the downstream population.

That's highly outside the norm of scientific understanding on TMI. Please provide a citation suggesting the dose and dose rate that you think those downwinders received. I can help compare dose rates to expected biological damage and we can look into the likelihood of anyone being injured by it.

Here's a 1984 study saying the dose from Krypton (vented years after the accident) was insignificant compared to the initial accident [1]. Where are you getting your info?

[1] https://tmi2kml.inl.gov/Documents/2d-Other/(1984-08-15)%20TM...

Regarding no one being warned... again, where are you getting this info? It looks like they were warned by the Washington Post [2].

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/05/15/s...

"Downwind" assumes dispersal by turbulent airflow over a large area.

But krypton gas is 3x as dense as air. Xenon is 5x. They don't mix eagerly with air, but run downhill more like a (fluffy) liquid. Riding above the water, they run freely over low obstacles to water flow, and spread out far beyond the water's edge. These gases would have run down the Susquehanna River and spread out in the bottom lands along it.

The paper cited in [1] is extremely guarded in its estimates of exposure to Kr radioisotopes, particularly concerning the more active ones like Kr87, 88, and 79. They note that helicopter sampling would produce unreliable measures, and the first measurements of any kind did not occur until 2 days after the incident, when the most active would have largely decayed, and (anyway) run downstream.

The peer-reviewed "A reevaluation of cancer incidence near ..." by Wing et al. ( https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/pdf/10.1289/ehp9710552 ) concludes that increased incidence of cancer around the plant is not consistent with published estimates of releases.

Evacuation was not suggested until two days after the event, and few did, as there were numerous assurances that it was safely contained.

Disingenuous disavowals of harm no not increase credibility.

Your link gives me a 404, but it looks like you're referring to https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1469835/ right? This article does not mention krypton at all, by name. Do you have anything that talks about this statement you made, in particular?

> it all ran downhill and pooled invisibly at the nearest dam where, conveniently, only poor people lived

There's also a pretty good critique of the paper you cited here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1469856/pdf/env...

Nitpicks: the Soviets rather than the Russians - Chernobyl is in Ukraine after all.

Mind you, I wonder if anyone actually explicitly decided not to collect the relevant statistics or whether facts like that were simply ignored by Soviet statisticians if they thought they might give "wrong" answer - there being some history in that area with Stalin and statisticians:


tl;dr the census accurately counted a deficit of millions of people, so the census takers were executed. There is no telling how many of the "before" count had existed, as previous counts were systematically inflated.

Fortunately we have dose maps from Chernobyl and have a rough understanding of biological damage vs. dose. Using conservative models, plus the medical records and interviews (WHO and UN got excellent access a few years after Chernobyl happened), we can build pretty good understandings even if census data was questionable. This was accounted for by UNSCEAR, who says "Up to 4000 may die early from Chernobyl" [1]

[1] https://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/chernobyl.html

Chernobyl did not have a reactor in 1937...

Bhopal was a major case study in the Safety course in my UK Chemical Engineering degree, so at least the lessons learned are taught in the West.

If I understand correctly, the Bhopal disaster was the result of irresponsible cost-cutting throughout upper management.

It's not enough that the engineers know what they're doing, if it's a clueless MBA making the policy decisions, no? Especially when they're chasing a bonus, and know they have full legal immunity if they kill people.

Oh yeah, in industrial circles it's very well known. Just not in the public at large or pop culture.

disasters in china tend to operate at just a whole different scale then ones in the west, like take the Taiping Rebellion, by some counts the 2nd deadliest modern war and it's not very well known in the west.

But Chernobyl was in the Soviet Union. This was considered not the west, right?

I was suggesting why the Chinese disasters may have gotten less play in the west

Tangentially related, the Yes Men went on the BBC pretending to be representatives of Dow, taking full responsibility for the disaster, and temporarily wiping $2bn off the market cap.

The man in the video, Jacques Servin, was fired from Maxis after adding an easter egg to SimCopter where groups of shirtless men appeared kissing each other on certain dates.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiWlvBro9eI https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Yes_Men

I always found it insanely funny how The Yes Men would create these fake Corporate personas, especially with their names. I'm sure they have complete biographies of each persona they create because each one seem well put together :).

I remember this in one of the three Yes Men feature film documentaries. They went to Bhopal and residents were happy about The Yes Men trolling the media, if only to bring more attention to how horribly they were treated before, during and after the incident.


This book covers Business in Bhopal as well as a variety of other design related disasters (Therac-25) etc.

Not a bad read.

The settlement of legal cases here is an example of great injustice of our times that needs to be corrected.

Ongoing contamination is very serious issue. West needs to put pressure and appropriate help for fixing this. Sadly developed countries spend lot on wars but care very less on real serious issues.


How can this be practically resolved at this point?

Who would you like to see held responsible?

Seems like Dow has its ways to deal with Indian Govt


I'm from Bhopal. Although I wasn't born when this happened, but a sibling and extended family have frightening stories to tell.

I was born in Bhopal, and was 15 months at the time when this incident happened.

Our family was one of the lucky one that survived with no injuries. It was a cold night and my mother decided to close the windows because she had an itchy throat. My mother suspects the itchy throat was probably the gas (can't say for sure if it is).

My grandfather recalls the next day, when went was out to buy milk in the early morning, having no clue as to what had happened the night before. There were dead animals all over the street, and birds were just falling out of the sky. Several of my grandfather's neighbors died, homeless living on the streets and on train and bus stations were dead.

Dow later purchased Union Carbide Corporation. Interestingly, they have a page about the disaster. https://corporate.dow.com/en-us/about/legal/issues/bhopal.ht...

"The former Bhopal plant was owned and operated by Union Carbide India, Ltd. (UCIL), an Indian company, with shared stock ownership by Union Carbide Corporation, the Indian government, and private investors. "

UC also sold off Eveready Battery to help pay for the original settlement.

I'd note that Union Carbine paid out 470m dollars (970m 2018 dollars) to resolve claims - they also paid for and funded a hospital in the area as well.

While its pretty clear that UCIL was very very negligent in plant maintenance, training and operations - its not abundantly clear that any of these were the proximate cause of the disaster - but rather contributory factors (which greatly enhanced the death toll) - its also somewhat unclear exactly how the water ended up in the MIC tank - as subsequent testing was unable to reproduce the condition that set off the disaster. The wikipedia page speculates that it was sabotage, which from my perspective does seem somewhat likely.

Applying Occam's razor, an unusual event like sabotage would need more than circumstantial evidence. There is a long list of contributing factors towards corporate negligence that makes an accident much more likely.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned in this thread yet is that the training for workers at the time of the accident was a small fraction of that originally intended for workers at the plant, and the reason for this was a financial decision taken by plant management under pressure from Union Carbide, not because the training wasn't needed.

A probable cause of the incident was water left in pipes by a worker, ordered by a novice supervisor, washing out a pipe; a process that was prohibited by plant rules. Extensive and repeated training imprints processes & rules into people's minds. If that action was the cause then with better training, both worker and supervisor would have known not to do this.

I've seen quite a few tv shows of bhopal, and none mentioned sabotage. All of them mentioned that the plant controls, gauges and alarms were so unreliable they had nothing to do with reality. Alarms went of for no reason at all while major problems went unnoticed.

So 'maybe it was sabotage' seems corporate blame shifting. It was somewhat unclear exactly how anything in there happened. That was their problem. It was only a matter of time before an accident happened.

If they hadn’t paid money out to the government of India, I’d agree with you whole heartedly. UCIL, was very much responsible for disaster - I’m less convinced that Union Carbide itself was culpable even though it paid.

But even then responsibility is not cause, and for me asan engineer I’m more interested in cause.

Of course, the cause is important. But in this case, it seems quite clear that the deplorable state of the plant would increase the risk to the point that any minor error would cause just about anything. No need for sabotage there.

Wikipedia, unfortunately, can't be trusted. There are companies tasked with bending the truth and inventing doubt about anything negative for any big corporations.

And if you buy a company, you own everything, including the nasty parts of its history. I might believe that nobody from the new corporation was directly responsible for bhopal. But they knew what they were buying.

I don’t know why you got downvoted. The sabotage theory makes the most sense when taking into account all the facts.

Yes Union Carbide were criminally negligent, but justice and truth must be respected, regardless of how much people love stories about evil corporations.

A poor country like India can't extract justice from a rich one. We're the so-called third world, so don't deserve to ask questions.

> A poor country like India can't extract justice from a rich one

50% of the plant was owned by Indian banks and the Government, and Indian courts jailed 7 Indian nationals for various failings related to this. Which country exactly are you expecting is meant to be picking up the slack here?

So you expect America to come in and police other countries? No, sorry. India is a sovereign country, and is the only country empowered and expected to police industries operating in India.

From the linked article :

> in 1987, the Indian government summoned Anderson, eight other executives and two company affiliates with homicide charges to appear in Indian court. In response, Union Carbide said the company is not under Indian jurisdiction.

Union Carbide was an American company that happened to operate in India. Indian government does need help from the American government to police an American company.

Union Carbide was an American company, that owned 50% of Union Carbide India Limited. The other 50% was owned "by Indian investors including the Government of India and government-controlled banks". The legal case was sent to India, because "UCIL was a separate and independent legal entity managed and staffed by Indian citizens". It's still around today: "Eveready Industries India Ltd. (EIIL), formerly Union Carbide India Limited, is the flagship company of the B. M. Khaitan Group".

India could decide not to allow untouchable companies from abroad to operate in their country.

You'll understand when we derive schadenfreude from the slow implosion of the hegemon.

Sure I understand. Schadenfreude is the only motivating principle the anti-american left has remaining, after all.

I just wish that, if American decline was a source of such joy for them, that they would do us the courtesy of not agitating for more work visas and American residency permits....

Not an American, have lived there and have no desire to return. Thanks.

I always like how the band Union Carbide Productions reminds us of this horrible incident.


Bayer thinks it can get out of the shit storm that is coming from their purchase of Monsanto the same way Dow has been trying since the purchase of Union Carbide but I don't think it will work this time around.

The executives who decided on the disastrous cost-cutting measures at the Bhopal plant, in the face of numerous warnings about the mortal danger they posed, should have been sent to prison.

World's worst industrial disaster


Union carbide is now owned by Dow Chemicals. Dow chemicals itself notorious for being one of the most toxic producing company on planet.

Even though there is great awareness in millenials about climate change, people has to understand earth as whole organism. To fix nature we must have to eliminate such chemical companies along with nukes.

To fix nature we must have to eliminate such chemical companies along with nukes.

Once you eliminate the chemical companies running the Haber-Bosch process, you can also dispose of the nukes by using them to put starving billions out of misery.

Getting downvoted because you made sense.

Only if you exclude gunpowder production: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanggongchang_Explosion

Thanks for link. Chemicals and nukes are still more dangerous than gunpowder. They cause mutation affecting upcoming generations too. People die slowly without even realizing causes.

Right in theory except if you look at it holistically nuclear energy does way less harm than competing energy sources. In terms of deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity, nuclear weighs in well below solar, wind and hydro. Even if you include Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and Fukushima. [1] It also generates basically negligible quantities of waste which can be used in different processes or safely stored underground. The total amount of waste produced so far is ~one football field. From the entire history of nuclear energy in America.

Humans are constantly exposed to low levels of background radiation, and surprisingly enough, we show very few negative effects from low levels of exposure even beyond that.

People are much more scared of radiation than they should be.

[1] https://www.nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-ener...

We need to invest more in research & safe solutions. Building tools, which by accident can eliminate large piece of humanity and damage nature severly, is not an ideal solution.

We've got an almost hundred year track record being two orders of magnitude safer than solar panels. More people die falling off roofs installing solar panels than from nuclear power. We have invested in safe solutions. It's safe. That's why its so expensive to build plants.

I think for perspective you should consider the single worst nuclear incident in the history of the world, Chernobyl, over the full course of time, will have caused 4000 deaths. Meanwhile, the worst hydro incident, the Bangqiao Dam [1] failure led to 230,000 deaths. 57.5X more deaths, and indelibly changed the landscape. Yet nobody seems to have a problem with hydro. Fear of nuclear is irrational. Respect it, don't fear it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banqiao_Dam

You do know chemicals occur in nature, right? Have you signed the petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide, which has killed millions of people?

Companies like this don't operate for fun. What are they producing that is so toxic, can it be replaced or disused completely, and/or are they behaving significantly worse than other companies fulfilling this demand would be?

Dow did not own it during the disaster and was not responsible for it. Your post is off topic.

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