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Rocket Fuel Plant Explosion



Areas of Expertise

Michael Fox, PhD.



Rocket Fuel Plant Explosion- Nevada

A rocket fuel (ammonium perchlorate) plant exploded in Nevada in May 1988. A consortium of insurance companies sued the rocket fuel plant and others to recover $77 million in damages to surrounding homes by the explosion shock wave. Dr. Fox was a member of the expert team determining the events leading up to the explosion. His work included site inspections, evidence gathering, cause & origin determination, as well as fire simulation experiments.

This explosion is a classic example of how seemingly unrelated events connect together and lead to catastrophe. This event began with the failure of the O-ring seals on the Challenger Space Shuttle, which in turn led to the Challenger disaster in 1986. The Space Shuttle program was then put on hold. However, one of the ingredients of the Shuttle’s solid rocket booster fuel, ammonium perchlorate, continued to be produced at a steady pace. 

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Space Shuttle

Soon, all the normal aluminum storage bins for the perchlorate were full and additional storage containers were needed. Instead of aluminum bins, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) drums were used. Neither the unconfined perchlorate nor HDPE bins present much of a hazard alone, but together they form a classic fuel + oxidizer scenario. Together, the polyethylene material and the perchlorate burn something like a roman candle, as seen in the video below.

Click on image to view video.

It is believed that welding sparks ignited one of the poly drums filled with ammonium perhlorate. Since there were drums filled with ammonium perchlorate just about everywhere on the site, once started, the initial fire was unstoppable. This growing fire heated the large (sealed) aluminum bins filled with ammonium perchlorate. Once the aluminum bins began to explode, they spread the fire to other parts of the plant where more poly drums and aluminum bins were stored. The final explosion (seen in the video) was a football field sized area of aluminum bins stacked on top of each other. The field was surrounded by the burning poly drums that provided the heat for the explosion.

Dr. Fox is an explosion expert, fire expert, and chemical expert with extensive experience in OSHA chemical regulations and chemical safety.