In a fertilizer plant located 12 km from a city with 40,000 population, a cryogenic ammonia (NH3) tank weighing 10,000 tons and filled to 70% capacity suddenly experienced a pressure rise and burst at its base. Under the impact of the wave gushing through the gaping opening, the tank separated from its platform, was pushed in the opposite direction and destroyed the reinforced concrete protection wall before coming to a stop 40 m from its foundations. A 70-cm high pool of liquid NH3 spread over the site and took 12 hours to fully evaporate. A flare stack ignited the vapours emitted and the fire reached the 55-kt NPK storage area; the thermal decomposition of these stocks lasted 3 days. The toxic cloud (NH3, NOx) contaminated a an area extending over 400 km². The official casualty reports indicated 7 dead and 57 injured among the plant’s operating personnel and construction crews working in the area. Local authorities evacuated the high-risk zones once the ammonia concentration of the air had exceeded 10 mg/m³; in all, 32,000 people were displaced.

The single-sided ammonia tank, insulated using perlite, was fed by a production unit (at a rate of 1,400 tons/day) located 600 m away. A few hours prior to the accident, one of the two liquefaction turbochargers was shut down for some lengthy repair work. One hour before, the second turbocharger was stopped for a short repair job. Operators were not easily able to activate the backup piston compressor and rerouted the NH3 flow to a pressurized storage area. Fourteen tons of hot NH3 (+ 10°C) were nonetheless introduced into the lower part of the cryogenic tank, whose gaseous atmosphere rose quickly in pressure. Despite the presence of relief valves, the tank bottom deformed and then burst. The rollover phenomenon anticipated by some was not confirmed by expert assessment.

The subsequent investigations showed:

– that greater strength of the tank lid, in comparison with the bonds in place between the internal chamber sidewall and the tank bottom or with anchoring brackets, caused tank failure at its base, as the tank bottom remained fastened to the foundations;

– the liquid ammonia wave caused the protection wall to break, before spreading over a much wider surface area; and

– since protection wall strength was not in compliance with the specifications stipulated during plant design as a result of modifications made at the time of construction in order to reduce material and labour costs. During construction, other modifications were supposedly introduced for the same reasons at the storage foundations and its anchorage device.

Download the detailed report in .pdf format (90 Kb)