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FLIXBOROUGH DISASTER, 1974

INTRODUCTION

• Owned by Nypro (UK) Ltd.


• Occurred in Flixborough, England
• The plant has been operating since 1967.
• June 1, 1974
THE PROCESS

• The plant was built for the production of


caprolactam.
• It involves the oxidation of cyclohexane
with air to produce a mixture of
cyclohexanol and cyclohexanone.
THE DISASTER

• Cyclohexane leaked from Reactor 5.


• Reactor 5 was removed for
inspection and a temporary bypass
assembly was constructed to
connect Reactor 4 and 6.
• At 4:53 pm, 20 inches bypass pipe
was ruptured.
• 40 tonnes of the cyclohexane
leaked.
• The cause of the disaster was the ignition and rapid acceleration of
deflagration, possibly to the point of detonation, of a massive vapour
cloud formed by the escape of cyclohexane under at least a pressure of
8.8 kg/cm2 and a temperature of 155°C.
PLANT LOCATION

• The Works are situated on flat low lying land on the east bank of the River
Trent about six miles to the south of the point at which that river joins the
Humber. They occupy an area of some 60 acres. The nearest villages are
Flixborough itself and Amcotts on the opposite bank of the river (both about
half-a-mile distant) and Burton-upon-Stather (about two miles distant). The
town of Scunthorpe is approximately three miles away.
EQUIPMENT

• The oxidation was carried out in a chain of six reactors each set 14
inches below its predecessor in the train so that the flow from reactor
to reactor was by gravity. In operation the reactors contained
cyclohexane to the appropriate levels at a working pressure of
approximately 8.8 kglcm2g and a temperature of 155°C. The reaction
was caused by the introduction of air and catalyst into the heated and
pressurised cyclohexane
PRODUCTION

• The product of the reaction consisted of a process fluid still containing


approximately 94% of cyclohexane; the other 6% was primarily cyclohexanone and
cyclohexanol with unwanted by-products.
• In subsequent stages of Section 25A, the process fluid was separated by distillation
into two parts, namely :
(i) cyclohexane which was recycled to the inlet where it mixed with fresh feed
and re-entered the train of reactors ;
(ii) cyclohexanone and cyclohexanol, which passed to other sections of the
plant for conversion to caprolactam.
WORKERS/PERSONNEL

• The managing director was a qualified chemical engineer with much experience of cyclohexane
plants and with detailed knowledge of the Flixborough plant and its operation.
• The organization was headed by a General Works Manager, who was an experienced chemical
engineer with a qualification from MTS Heerlen.
• There were Seven executives, three plant managers covering respectively area one and utilities,
area two and area three; the Technical Manager; the Chief Chemist; the Instrument Engineer; the
Works Engineer.
• There was, additionally, a Safety & Training Manager. The works engineer was a chartered
mechanical engineer but later left the company.
• A co-ordinating function was exercised by a service engineer, who was not qualified to act as a
co-ordinator of the engineering department of a plant such as Flixborough and should not have
been asked to assume this responsibility even for a short while.
HANDLING AND STORAGE

• From the safety point of view, the oxidation process introduced a new dimension.
Cyclohexane, which is in many of its properties comparable with petrol, had to be
stored. More importantly, large quantities of cyclohexane had to be circulated through
the reactors under a working pressure of about 8.8 kglcm2 and a temperature of
155°C.Any escape from the plant was therefore potentially dangerous.
• The unlicensed storage of large quantities of fluids had no effect upon this disaster but
it is clearly useless to have a licensing system which is so ineffective that it can lead to
such results.
SAFETY AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

• There can be no doubt that Nypro were very safety conscious and the
safety and training manager had created a proper system for dealing
with normal hazards and was in the course of preparing and putting in
hand a disaster plan. It was not in operation but this has no relevance
for it was not designed to deal with an instantaneous catastrophic
disaster such as occurred. It was concerned with an escalating situation.
• River Trent, whose bed flows close to the Flixborough site, was closed
to all fishing activity.