Blog Archives

Nuclear Reactors ≠ Nuclear Bombs

This is what I like to refer to as uninformed lunacy. It disturbs me that ANY educational system could spawn someone that believes this would work. It also disturbs me how horribly little people know about nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors are not nuclear bombs, the only way a reactor can explode is the same way your water heater might explode, the pressure gets too high and the lid blows off, that’s what happened in Chernobyl, and that’s the worst possible outcome of any disaster involving a nuclear reactor, that’s it. Now, that pressure explosion is a terrible thing and will almost certainly kill anyone in the facility, but you’re not looking at a mushroom cloud situation that destroys the area for several miles around. Instead, they act more like a dirty bomb, wherein the actual explosion is relatively minimal, but the release of highly radioactive fission-products into the environment causes intense radiation sickness and death in the area immediately around the bomb for hundreds of years (until they decay into a stable state) and terrifies the populace due to the fear of radiation and nuclear power. It’s nasty, yeah, but a nuclear bomb it is not.

I’d also like to point out that the tsunami that swept away entire towns didn’t come close to destroying that reactor; they’re built to withstand natural disasters, they’re built to withstand 747s crashing into them, they’re strong buildings and exceptionally well-designed. And the amount of radiation that escaped when the rods were uncovered within the reactor vessel (which just means the water level went below the height of the rods, not that they were out in the open or anything)? ~110 millirem/hr the first time they were exposed, ~313 millirem/hr the second time. To put that in perspective, you can get that in about 8 cross-country flights or 6 chest x-rays or two weeks on the beach in Mexico or just simply living anywhere on the planet for 8 months (cosmic radiation and radon gas will cause about 500 millirem/yr). It’s not a significant amount. Having worked on nuclear reactors for 5 years of my life, and more importantly lived on this planet for 28 years, I’ve been exposed to a lot more than 300 millirem, it’s not a problem.

Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy, posted a most excellent article on this issue.