Subatomic Particles

Can a nuclear power plant explode?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. The idea of a nuclear power plant going off like a bomb likely came from our collective imaginations after seeing years of images of nuclear bomb test footage. First, there's a flash of light, followed by the rush of the concussion and a rising mushroom cloud. When the smoke clears, the power plant and the neighboring city have been flattened, right? Not really. "The China Syndrome" gave moviegoers visions of Jane Fonda running for her life in the midst of a nuclear meltdown, causing undue panic and the belief that where there was a nuclear power plant, there would be an explosion. Though the film was made in 1979, its message left an indelible impression that is still part of the public's mind today. And yet, this event is not only unlikely, but it's impossible. Nuclear plants aren't identical to nuclear bombs, and that's where the disconnect exists. The fuel in a nuclear plant does not contain the materials necessary to explode like a bomb, nor can its components form what is known as a "supercritical" shape in order to explode.

    As the world witnessed at Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear plants will experience a meltdown rather than blowing up. A nuclear plant's fuel rods require a constant flow of coolant to keep them within a safe temperature range. If the rods are not cooled, they will grow hot enough to melt through the equipment that's supporting them. Exposed rods will also begin to oxidize. The oxidation process, along with leftover water, will create a buildup of hydrogen gas that can be explosive [source: Popular Science]. The Fukushima plant experienced hydrogen explosions that injured many people, but these were relatively small detonations compared to a nuclear blast [source: BBC News].

    The real threat in a nuclear meltdown is not the event of an explosion. The greater concern is radiation leaking from the plant. Once airborne, it can contaminate huge swaths of landside. The radiation can reach around the world, though its levels become weaker due to dissipation. In other words, the farther you are from a meltdown site, the safer you are.

    The dangerous nature of nuclear power plant fuel has led to regular opposition to new nuclear power plants being built. Equally, there exists no shortage of argument over what might become of spent nuclear fuel. Nuclear waste disposal has been a public concern for as long as these plants have been built. For many years, the U.S. government has pondered disposing of the nation's nuclear waste materials in a site to be built at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Overseas, France is planning a laboratory situated 1,600 feet (488 meters) underground within 150-million year-old rock. Nuclear waste would be turned to molten glass, poured into steel containers and bored into the rock. Pending approval, construction on the laboratory will begin in 2017.

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