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Meltdown: A Technical Critique

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posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 07:33 PM
I am currently watching Meltdown, a made-for-tv movie, on FX. The premise of the movie is that terrorists take over a nuclear power plant, and attempt to use it as a bomb. I have noticed some large technical errors. I am a nuclear engineer, and I have worked in a nuclear power plant as recently as last year. I'm going to point out some of the errors I see in this movie, and try to dispell any myths that this movie will generate regarding the safety of nuclear power.

  1. First, access to the plant: there are several physical barriers to entry. First, there is a gated checkpoint several hundred yards away from the plant. Next, the road leading to the main gate is set up in such a way that a straigh-shot towards the gate is not possible. The main gate itself is a very sturdy structure, and is rated to survive to impact of a large truck (exact specifications unknown). To gain access to the plant proper, personnel must go through a gauntlet of checks, and the guards that control the gates are enclosed in a very secure booth.
  2. The security officers in the movie are portrayed as little more that "rent-a-cops." This couldn't be further from the truth. The actual security force is a highty trained paramilitary group. Many of the guards carry AR-15 assault rifles in addition to their sidearms, and they are prepared to use them.
  3. If the control room operators want to shut the reactor down, they don't have to go through a "pre-shutdown procedure." The systems are designed with safety as the first priority, so if the operators deem it necessary, they can instantly "SCRAM" the reactor. Very little other action is necessary to maintain the reactor in a safe shutdown state.
  4. They interview a Harvard "professor" in the movie, who claims that a meltdown will result in radioactive debris being spread all over, such as occured at Chernobyl. Three Mile Island was a meltdown, and negligible radiation was released. Chernobyl was an EXPLOSION. Operator stupidity combined with a poor design resulted in that explosion. It is impossible to repeat such a thing with an American reactor. Do a little research on RBMK (Chernobyl) and PWR/BWR (American) reactors, and you will see all the differences that make this impossible.
  5. Control room operators are trained to deal with terrorists or other hostage takers. They are taught to follow all instructions, to speak when spoken to, and to never look the terrorist in the eyes. This is seen as a sign of agression, and will only make the terrorist/hostage-taker more angry.
  6. Forget about getting direct access to the primary coolant system. It is completely enclosed in the containment structure, which is composed of several feet of concrete and steel. The only access is through a locked steel airlock. It would be incredibly difficult to even blow your way in.

As a movie it was mediocre at best. There were a couple interesting plot twists, but overall pretty typical of your average made-for-tv movie. I will give the writers some credit, they did their homework, at least more than was done for Atomic Twister, an atrocious movie that came out a year or two ago.

If you have any questions regarding the movie, or nuclear power in general, feel free to ask.

[edit on 6/6/2004 by PurdueNuc]

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 07:39 PM
I have been watching this too, but I really find it unlikely the news would be informed. They might find out on their own, but I doubt that real-time reports would be available to the news.

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 08:40 PM
Im watching this movie as well. It sure is cornball and well I dont like that damn black and white technique they got going.

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 08:51 PM
Well something I thought of during the commercial, was the building and structure itself.

Nuclear plants do have maintenance flaws and other issues.

I seem to recall a US nuclear plant a few years ago, cought for failing to maintain the plant properly. They had the dry-ice buckets over the pond, half empty or more. Plus certain hardware had been missing from the buckets.

Granted this is not typical of plants, nor the 'blind' inspectors of the inspection process, but it shows other flaws that would make them prone to attack, and the security alot of times in less critical areas, probubly are rent-a-cops.

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 09:02 PM
So, is it even possible for a nuclear plant to explode now, or would there have to be a major amount of explosives to trigger a nuclear blast?
Also, did i hear the terrorists say they were from Croatia??

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 09:20 PM
Yes, nuclear plants, like any industrial facility, do have minor flaws. This is inherent in any electrical/mechanical system. That is why all safety systems are triple-redundant, at least. For intsance, the plant I worked at had six backup diesel generators, each one capable of running all the necessary systems (this was a two-unit site, so two for each unit, plus two shared and for non-critical systems).

However, these flaws do not pose security or safety risks. There are very stringent requirements regarding what systems must be operational in order for the reactor to be operating (yes, these requirements are followed to the letter). The systems are inspected several times a day, and maintenance overhauls are performed on a regular basis. Let me make it very clear, safety is the primary concern in nuclear plant operations. Also, nuclear plants are under intense scrutiny, from within (every employee), from the government (NRC has on-site inspectors at every plant), and from the media. Due to this, minor issues that don't affect plant safety may often appear to be bigger issues.

I assure you, there are no "rent-a-cops" at a nuclear facility. Naturally, there are newer officers who haven't undergone weapons training who won't be guarding vital areas, but there's always several fully-armed officers within 100 feet, even in the office buildings.

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the "dry-ice buckets" you refer to. Some plants use ice condensors, the details of which I don't know. I'll do a little research and see what I can find.

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 09:23 PM
I toured Comanche peak power plant back in the mid 90's, you had to go down a mile long road that was surveiled by cameras to get to the plant after checking in at a visitors center. Names and personal info of visitors was provided well before the visit for records check. Once at the plant site there was a double fence 10' apart with concertina wire and motion sensors buried in the ground between the fences, maybe mines but they would not confirm. The perimeter guard that was visible carried combat shotguns and AR-15's along with sidearms consisting of Barretta 9mm handguns, they all wore bullit proof vests. To get inside each visitor had to submit to a scanned handprint that matched previous fingerprints along with going through metal detector. The containment vessel had three foot thick concrete walls that had interlaced 2"rebar so as not to provide any clear path for a projectile or airplane (747) We never got closer than 200' to that building, but we were able to tour the generator facility along with the control room, this security was good even before 9/11

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 09:25 PM

Originally posted by Jamuhn
So, is it even possible for a nuclear plant to explode now, or would there have to be a major amount of explosives to trigger a nuclear blast?
Also, did i hear the terrorists say they were from Croatia??

Yes, a very large amount of explosives would be required to blow up a nuclear power plant. The containment structure surrounding the reactor is designed to withstand enourmous pressures and stresses.

I'll u2u you about the terrorists in the movie - don't want to spoil it for anyone!

this security was good even before 9/11

You are absolutely correct. There was a lot of hoopla after 9/11 about increasing security at nuclear power plants, talks of federalizing the security forces, etc. What the NRC and the power industry tried to tell everyone was that the security at the plants already was very good. Unfortunately, the media decided that there wasn't much of a story in that, so they put their usual spin on it.

[edit on 6/6/2004 by PurdueNuc]

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 09:31 PM
Well I imagine security is definetly different since 911.

Here is some info related to the plant I mentioned earlier...

On Sept. 9, 1997, both reactors at Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant are taken offline in a controlled, but unexpected, shutdown after their emergency core cooling systems are declared inoperable.

Senior Cook officials, many of whom have since been replaced, act to dispel any doubts. They dash through a self-generated safety-systems checklist, pronounce the plant ready to resume full power and prepare for restart in early 1998.

A last-minute inspection of Cook's ice condenser system is ordered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As the story is related in various documents, inspectors find enough problems in a single walkthrough to continue the plant shutdown.

A Tribune investigation into events before and after the 1997 outage showed that Cook officials failed to address safety concerns for years, and the NRC had to be prodded to enforce its own rules.

Yet it took a nuclear watchdog group and a pair of whistleblowers from distant plants to make the case that Cook was unfit, by NRC standards, to sustain a large-break, loss-of-coolant accident in either of its oval containment structures next to Lake Michigan.

This is an extreme example of a company cought cheating the safety factors. I could only hope that safety ranks as high as security now.

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 09:34 PM
The ice condensors are basically buckets designed to dump dry ice into the ponds for emergency cooling. These condensors were half empty, and missing securing hardware that had rusted off, that were part of the bucket actuator system.

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 10:04 PM

Thank you for your insights into this issue. Coming from a nuclear engineer, one who has knowledge of the topic, your input is appreciated.

I have a question of a general nature. There is concern about the effects of having a plane flying into a nuclear reactor. Do you have any insight into what the damage could be from planes of different sizes/types? Can a single engine plane do much damage with a direct hit? What about a commercial airliner?

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 10:12 PM
OK last post on this plants cooling system, I promise...

The Ice Condenser system, as used at the Sequoyah, McGuire, and DC Cook plants, maintain large banks of borated ice stored in special baskets. This type of system is designed to reduce the size of the containment.

posted on Jun, 6 2004 @ 10:37 PM
smirkley - Unfortunately, events like that do occur (rarely, I should mention), and I can only wonder what the folks at DC Cook were thinking. It's good to see that those responsible were quickly replaced. It is a sad fact of human nature that people will sometimes put profits ahead of safety. From my own experience, safety was drilled into our heads whenever possible, and we were given many ways to report a safety concern. Of course there were our supervisors, failing any action from them we had an anonymous internal concerns system, failing that the NRC provides an anonymous concerns hotline. I never saw nor heard of anything related to pressure from above to ignore safety procedures. We in the nuclear industry are required to have a strong safety culture, in fact, our careers depend upon it.

jsobecky - Just trying to help people "Deny Ignorance." Unfortunately, the only exposure most of the public has to nuclear power is through poorly made movies such as this (this is true of many things other than nuclear power, as well). To the best of my knowledge, reactor containment structures were intially designed with the impact of a 707 as one of the design criteria. As I understand it, after 9/11 the NRC performed a reevaluation on a typical containment, and found that a direct hit from a 747 should not damage plant systems beyond acceptable levels. It should be noted that nuclear power plants have a relatively small footprint, and as any pilot will tell you directing a large aircraft into a direct hit with a plant would be difficult at best. Any airplane crash could certainly damage some of the plant structures, but all the safety systems are protected by reinforced concrete and steel and would not be damaged.

These plants are considerably overbuilt, and every analysis assumes the worst case. For instance, the plant I worked at is located on the Mississippi river, and one analysis that was performed assumed that a barge fully laden with explosives detonated directly adjacent to the plant. Talk about an explosion! It had to be shown that the plant would remain safe after this.

edit: thanks for that link, smirkley. I was just about to post that site. Nuclear Tourist is a great site, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in information on nuclear power plants check it out.

[edit on 6/6/2004 by PurdueNuc]

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