Nuclear Disasters and Accidents
Introduction: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 2700� 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.
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 products in the fuel rods.
Because the pumps removing water from the core were still active, and a valve that controlled the cool water entering the core failed, water was leaving the core, but not coming in. This reduced the amount of coolant in the core. There wasn't enough coolant in the core, so the Emergency Core Cooling System automatically turned on. This should have provided enough extra coolant to make up for the stuck valve, except that the reactor operator, thinking that enough coolant was already in the core, shut it off too early.
There still wasn't enough coolant, so the core's temperature kept increasing. A valve at the top of the core automatically opened to vent some of the steam in the core. This should have helped matters by removing the hot steam, but the valve didn't close properly. Because it didn't close, steam continued to vent from the reactor, further reducing the coolant level. The reactor operators should have known the valve didn't close, but the indicator in the control room was covered by a maintenance tag attached to a nearby switch. Because the operators didn't know that the valve had failed to close, they assumed that the situation was under control, as the core temperature had stopped rising with the first venting of steam from the core. They also thought that the coolant had been replaced in the core, because they didn't know that the pump outlets were closed. A few minutes later the core temperature began to rise again, and the Emergency Core Cooling System automatically switched on. Once again, an operator de-activated it, thinking the situation was under control. In reality, it was not.
Soon, because of the coolant lost through the open valve at the top of the reactor, the core temperature began to rise again. At this point the fuel rods started to collapse from the intense heat inside the core. The operators knew something was wrong, but didn't understand what it was. This was about 5 minutes after the initial valve failure. It took almost 2 hours for someone to figure out that the valve releasing steam at the top of reactor hadn't closed properly. During those 2 hours, precious coolant continued to be released from the reactor a meltdown was underway. At approximately 6AM, an operator discovered the valve at the top of the core was open and closed it.
During the day hydrogen gas began to accumulate inside the reactor and caused an explosion later in the afternoon. This explosion did not damage the containment systems, however. Two days later, the core was still not under operator control. A group of nuclear experts were asked to help evaluate the situation. They figured out that a lot of hydrogen gas had accumulated at the top of the core. This gas could have exploded, like the explosion on the first day of the accident, or it could have displaced the remaining coolant in the reactor, causing a complete nuclear reactor meltdown. No one really knew what to do about the hydrogen build-up. A hydrogen recombiner was used to remove some of the hydrogen, but it was not very effective. However, hydrogen also dissolves in water, which is what the coolant was composed of. Thus, over time the hydrogen that had collected at the top of the core completely dissolved in the coolant. Two weeks later the reactor was brought to a cold shutdown and the accident was over.
No one was directly injured as a result of the accident. However, some radioactive gas and water were vented to the environment around the reactor. At one point, radioactive water was released into the Susquehanna river, which is a source of drinking water for nearby communities. No one is really sure what effects these radioactive releases might have had on people living near the power plant.
Early in the day, before the test, the power output of the reactor was dropped in preparation for the upcoming test. Unexpectedly, the reactor's power output dropped way too much, almost to zero. Because of this drop, some control rods were removed to bring the power back up. (As you recall from the fission power text, the more control rods there are in a reactor, the more free neutrons are absorbed and the less fissioning that goes on. So, more control rods means less energy and power output.) The reactor's power output raised up, and all appeared to be normal.
More preparation for the test began later when two pumps were switched on in the cooling system. They increased water flow out of the reactor, and thus removed heat more quickly. They also caused the water level to lower in a component of the reactor called the steam separator. Because of the low level of water in the steam separator, the operator increased the amount of feed water coming into it, in the hopes that the water level would rise. Also, more control rods were taken out of the reactor to raise internal reactor temperature and pressure, also in the hopes that it would cause the water level in the steam separator to rise. The water level in the steam separator began to rise, so the operator adjusted again the flow of feed water by lowering it. This decreased the amount of heat being removed from the reactor core.
Because many control rods had been removed and the amount of heat being taken from the core by the coolant had been reduced, it began to get very hot. Also, there was relatively low pressure in the core because the amount of incoming water had been decreased. Because of the heat and the low pressure, coolant inside the core began to boil to form steam.
The actual test began with the closing of the turbine feed valves. This should have caused an increase in pressure in the cooling system, which in turn would have caused a decrease in steam in the core. This should have lowered the reactivity in the core. Thus, the normal next step when closing the turbine feed valves was to retract more control rods, increasing reactivity in the core. This is what the operator at Chernobyl did. The only problem was that in this case there was no increase in pressure in the cooling system because of the earlier feed water reduction. This meant that there was already a normal amount of steam in the core, even with the turbine feed valves closed. Thus, by retracting more control rods to make up for a reduction in steam that didn't happen, the operator caused too much steam to be produced in the core.
With the surplus of steam, the reactor's power output increased. Soon, even more steam was being produced. The operator realized there was a problem and SCRAMmed the reactor, completely disabling all fission reactions. However, it was too late. The temperature and pressure inside the reactor had already risen dramatically, and the fuel rods had begun to shatter.
After the fuel rods shattered, two explosions occurred as a result of liquid uranium reacting with steam and from fuel vapor expansion (caused by the intense heat). The reactor containment was broken, and the top of the reactor lifted off. With the containment broken, outside air began to enter the reactor. In this particular Soviet reactor, graphite was used as a moderator instead of water. (water was the coolant) As air entered the core, it reacted with the graphite. Graphite is essentially just carbon, so oxygen from the air chemically combined with the carbon to form CO (carbon monoxide). Carbon monoxide is flammable and soon caught fire. The fire emitted extremely radioactive smoke into the area surrounding the reactor. Additionally, the explosion ejected a portion of the reactor fuel into the surrounding atmosphere and countryside. This fuel contained both fission products and transuranic wastes.
During the days following the accident, hundreds of people worked to quell the reactor fire and the escape of radioactive materials. Liquid nitrogen was pumped into the reactor core to cool it down. Helicopters dumped neutron-absorbing materials into the exposed core to prevent it from going critical. Sand and other fire-fighting materials were also dropped into the core to help stop the graphite fire. All in all, over 5000(metric) tons of material were dropped into the core. After the fires were brought under control, construction of what is called "the sarcophagus" began. The word "sarcophagus" is usually used to describe the elaborate coffins the ancient Egyptians used to entomb their dead. In this case, the sarcophagus is a structure erected from about 300,000 metric tons of concrete that surrounds the reactor. It was designed to contain the radioactive waste inside. It has served its purpose well, but, now, ten years after the accident, several flaws have been found in it. Holes have begun to appear in the roof, allowing rainwater to accumulate inside. This water can corrode the structure, further weakening it. Also, birds and other animals have been seen making homes in the sarcophagus. If they should ingest radioactive material, they could spread it around the countryside. Additionally, with time the sarcophagus has become worn down. It is conceivable that an intense event like an earthquake, tornado, or plane crash directly on the sarcophagus could lead to its collapse. This would be catastrophic, as radioactive dust would once again rain down on the surrounding areas. Scientists and engineers are working on ways to repair or replace the structure.
One of the great tragedies of the accident was that the Soviet government tried to cover it up. Clouds of fallout were traveling towards major population centers such as Minsk, and no one was warned. No one outside the Soviet Union knew about the accident until two days later, when scientists in Sweden detected massive amount of radiation being blown from the east.
The effects of the disaster at Chernobyl were very widespread. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that the radiation release from the Chernobyl accident was 200 times that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs combined. The fallout was also far-reaching. For a time, radiation levels in a Scotland were 10,000 times the norm. 30 lives were directly lost during the accident or within a few months after it. Many of these lives were those of the workers trying to put out the graphite fire and were lost from radiation poisoning. The radiation released has also had long-term effects on the cancer incidence rate of the surrounding population. According to the Ukrainian Radiological Institute over 2500 deaths resulted from the Chernobyl incident. The WHO has found a significant increase in cancer in the surrounding area. For example, in 1986 (the year of the accident), 2 cases of childhood thyroid cancer occurred in the Gomel administrative district of the Ukraine (this is the region around the plant). In 1993 there were 42 cases, which is 21 times the rate in 1986. The rate of thyroid cancer is particularly high after the Chernobyl accident because much of the radiation was emitted in the form iodine-131, which collects in the thyroid gland, especially in young children. Other cancer incidence rates didn't seem to be affected. For example, leukemia was no more prevalent after the accident than before.
What caused the accident? This is a very hard question to answer. The obvious one is operator error. The operator was not very familiar with the reactor and hadn't been trained enough. Additionally, when the accident occurred, normal safety rules were not being followed because they were running a test. For example, regulations required that at least 15 control rods always remain in the reactor. When the explosion occurred, less than 10 were present. This happened because many of the rods were removed to raise power output. This was one of the direct causes of the accident. Also, the reactor itself was not designed well and was prone to abrupt and massive power surges.
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