A petroleum refinery experienced a catastrophic rupture at one bank of three heat exchangers in a catalytic reformer/naphtha hydrotreater unit because of high temperature hydrogen attack (HTHA). Hydrogen and naphtha at more than 500F were released from the ruptured heat exchanger and ignited, causing an explosion and an intense fire burned for more than three hours.

The rupture fatally injured seven employees working in the immediate vicinity of heat exchanger at the time of the incident. The workers were in the final stages of a start-up activity to put a parallel bank of three heat exchangers back in service following cleaning. Such start-up activities had resulted in frequent leaks and occasional fires in the past and should have been considered as hazardous and nonroutine. view more

The incident occurred in the catalytic hydrotreatment plant of an oil refinery. The plant, which began operations in September 1997, has a capacity of 1650 tons/day of light fuel oil and 1450 tons/day of heavy fuel oil. The plant was designed to desulfurize the light and heavy fuel oil fractions produced in the refinery by treating them with high-pressure hydrogen over a catalyst to remove sulfur (producing hydrogen sulfide as a byproduct). The plant has two heating/reaction/fractionating sections to treat the two fuel oil fractions, but a single gas purification and compression section for the recycled hydrogen gas.

The heavy fuel oil reactor feedstock from the vacuum distillation plant is sent to the heavy fuel oil treatment section through three pipelines equipped with flow view more