One of the scariest things about nuclear power is when something goes wrong and an accident occurs. Radiation is released into the environment and people get hurt. Two of the most famous nuclear accidents occurred at the Three Mile Island reactor 2 in the United States and the Chernobyl reactor 4 in the former Soviet Union. In this text we will discuss these two disasters, along with correcting a few common misconceptions about nuclear accidents.
The Myth of a Reactor Explosion:
It is impossible for any PWR or LWR nuclear reactor to explode like an atomic bomb. This is because in order for an uncontrolled chain reaction to occur that is similar to an atom bomb, the uranium fuel must be extremely enriched, much more than the 4% 235U that is present in regular, commercial nuclear reactor fuel. So, if it can't explode, what does happen in a nuclear reactor? The answer is what is called a meltdown. When a meltdown occurs in a reactor, the reactor "melts". That is, the temperature rises in the core so much that the fuel rods actually turn to liquid, like ice turns into water when heated. If the core continued to heat, the reactor would get so hot that the steel walls of the core would also melt. In a complete reactor meltdown, the extremely hot (about 2700ï¿½ Celsius) molten uranium fuel rods would melt through the bottom of the reactor and actually sink about 50 feet into the earth beneath the power plant. The molten uranium would react with groundwater, producing large explosions of radioactive steam and debris that would affect nearby towns and population centers. In general a nuclear meltdown would occurr if the reactor loses its coolant. This is what occured in the two disasters that we will discuss. Without coolant, the core's temperature would rise, resulting in the meltdown scenario we explained above. You may be wondering, "Why can't they just drop the control rods in the reactor if it starts to get out of control?". The answer is that they can. The problem is that, even if the control rods are completely dropped in and the nuclear chain reaction stops, the reactor is still extremely hot and will not cool down unless coolant is put back in. The residual heat and the heat produced from the decay of the fission products are enough to drive the core's temperature up even if the nuclear chain reaction stops.
Three Mile Island:
Outside View of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant
Photo Courtesy Nuclear Regulatory Commission
On an island 10 miles from Harrisburg Pennsylvania resides the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Station. There are two reactors at the plant, dubbed Unit 1 and Unit 2. One of them is inoperable. Unit 2 experienced a partial reactor meltdown on March 28, 1979. A partial nuclear meltdown is when the uranium fuel rods start to liquefy, but they do not fall through the reactor floor and breach the containment systems. The accident which occurred at Unit 2 is considered to be the worst nuclear disaster in US history. Why did it happen? There are many reasons for the accident, but the two main ones are simple human error and the failure of a rather minor valve in the reactor. In the following paragraphs, we will explain how it was possible for the accident to happen and both its psychological and physical effects on the American people. The accident at TMI (Three Mile Island) began at about four in the morning with the failure of one of the valves that controlled coolant flow into the reactor. Because of this, the amount of cool water entering the reactor decreased, and the core temperature rose. When this happened, automatic computerized systems engaged, and the reactor was automatically SCRAMmed. The nuclear chain reaction then stopped. This only slowed the rate at which the core temperature was increasing, however. The temperature was still rising because of residual heat in the reactor and energy released from the decaying fission...