Indian Point Nuke 50-mile radius of doom ... true?

This activist site says:

Is this 50-mile-radius threat true? I would guess that the real radius of doom would be much smaller, and much more heavily influenced by the wind (i.e., I would expect a good ten-mile circle of trouble plus a several-hundred-miles-long plume of trouble to the east, following the direction of the prevailing winds).

I’m mostly curious because I just bought land about the 35-40 miles NNW of Indian Point. :slight_smile: Am I doomed to fry?

Following the 9/11 attacks, I was at a bioterrorism meeting in San Diego where a company called SAIC showed scenarios of a dirty bomb (can’t remember the yield however) being set off at the UN in NYC, and their software estimated the fallout pattern, areas of danger, etc. Certainly, it looked like it stretched a good fifty miles over most of Long Island, but hardly in a ‘radius’. In fact, as I recall, being just a little West of the blast (say 5 miles) had no radiation beyond background levels. The cloud was long and very narrow, and even beyond about 10 miles right under it, it still wasn’t THAT bad. I think the statistic you are quoting is that there is the POTENTIAL for ‘higher than background’ radiation levels within a 50 mile radius. In reality, unless you are downwind, you have nothing to worry about, and even then, at your distance, even in the worst scenario, I’d be surprised if your overall exposure was more than getting X-rays at the dentist.

Uhh, this may be a dumb question, but wouldn’t you first have to drain the millions of gallons of water out of the spent fuel storage pools before you set them on fire? Wouldn’t that make such an accident very, very, astronomically difficult to achieve?

Take anything about “disasters & threats to the nation” from SIAC with a grain of salt. They’ve been pilloried time and again for serious alarmism. Which is understandable, as they get paid to help combat the very threats they warn about.

Gee, how fast we forget Chernobyl!

“*For more than nine years now, the Belarusians have been living under the conditions of an ecological disaster that of the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant catastrophe. The Republic spends annually more than 20 per cent of its national budget to mitigate the economic, ecological and medical after-effects of the Chernobyl accident. But most horrible is what is happening to the health and psyche of the people. The incidence of thyroid cancer in children has increased manifold. The birth rate has fallen 50 per cent since the period preceding the accident. Genetic diseases are conspicuously on the rise in the most contaminated areas. As time goes by, it becomes more and more evident that the Chernobyl catastrophe has infringed the most sacred of human rights — the right to life. *”


Remember that design of the reactor has a huge amount to do with it’s potential for disaster. Chernobyl was a graphite-moderated plant, with hundreds of tons of charcoal to burn, creating vast clouds of contaminated particulate, and crapping-up pretty much everything down-wind. The Indian Point plant is a pressurized water reactor. Water is it’s coolant, and water is it’s moderator. Remove the water, and the reaction shuts down. Although the core may very well crumble under residual heat, it’s not going to continue to react. What you’ll get, instead, is Three Mile Island, which as nuclear disasters go, was expensive but mild.

Now if Indian Point is in poor condition, or poorly maintained, I’d ask that it be shut down until fixed, but I’m not concerned about a “Chernobyl” from that plant. If it’s too costly to maintain while supplying competitively-priced electricity, then I’d say mothball it.

Who’s forgetting Chernobyl? Nobody here is saying that an accident at a nuclear power plant wouldn’t be a very, very bad thing, and nobody here is saying that it could never happen.

However, some of us here are saying that the linked site appears a tad alarmist. Hysterically overstating a small but real risk is often counterproductive, as it makes the claimant look like he’s “crying wolf”.

And since you brought up Chernobyl, in case anyone is under the impression that western nuclear plants were ever built or operated like Chernobyl:

(My apologies for the length of the quoted material. I hope it will not violate copyright.)

Yeah, no doubt a leak/meltdown/sabotage/etc. of Indian Point would be BAD. And certainly, area cancer rates would possibly be higher for decades/centuries to come.

But would everyone within a 50-mile radius actually be in imminent danger on the day of the disaster? The evidence seems to say, no.

And as far as long-term health issues go, it seems unlikely to me that people living far upwind/upriver (say, greater than 20 miles) would see any measurable increase in cancer rates.

Did it ever occur to anyone that “50 mile radius” was just an oversimplification for an article? Much easier to keep the reader’s attention than by detailing an irregular and graduated contamination pattern dependent upon current wind conditions even if it isn’t completely accurate.

Padeye, if it is a deliberate simplification for purposes of not having to explain, then it’s worse than getting the facts wrong, it’s deliberately mis-representing the facts.

For issues as serious as reporting on public health risks, that would be a major screw-up on the part of the author. I’ll assume that the author is simply poorly educated on the subject, else I’d have to assume that the author is deliberately misleading us, and/or is too lazy & sloppy to be allowed to report on public health risks.

The reason that water is a good modulator/dampening agent for those radioactive spent fuel cores is that it absorbs neutrons. Now, I’m not sure where in the molecule those neutrons get absorbed, but I’d hazard a guess that it tends to be the hydrogen, whose atoms occupy a larger volume than the oxygen.

Now, 99+% of hydrogen is protium, H-1, to which adding a neutron produces deuterium, H-2, a completely stable, and useful, substance. But the other <1% is deuterium, to which adding a neutron produces radioactive tritium, H-3, (along with a vanishingly small quantity of tritium, which converts to He-4).

As the water continues to absorb neutrons, more and more H-2 is produced, and therefore more and more H-3 is produced.

Note that one of the primary characteristics of water is that it boils at 100 degrees Celsius (for normal composition water) – pure deuterium is a few degrees higher IIRC. Another characteristic is that it is absorbed by the soil, and will flow through cracks in a container to get there.

Given all this,
> To what actual extent is tritium produced and to what extent is it released to the environment?
> What is the possibility of the spent cores bringing the water to a boil – and perhaps boiling dry? Does this vary with time or with the amount of cores stored in a given storage unit?
> What is the possibility of an accident, or sabotage, causing the water to drain off? What would then happen to the cores?

These sorts of questions get stonewalled by major utilities, for reasons that should be obvious – any admission of possible danger whatsoever subjects them to a wide variety of possible penalties, ranging from lawsuit to NRC closure. On the other hand, much of the data prepared by anti-nuclear-plant protesters seems to be facile summaries of worst-case scenarios disguised as “what will happen sooner or later.” And while I’m not uninformed about this sort of thing, I don’t have the background in nuclear physics or engineering to possibly arrive at intelligent answers to those questions. And I live within 50 miles of a plant where Progress Energy is proposing to store twice as many cores.

Nor, may it be noted, do our elected representatives seem either able or interested in getting accurate answers to these questions.

I know I’m putting a fellow poster on the spot with this, and will understand if she declines to give answers that address those questions. However, I think they are questions that do deserve answers from somebody.

The potential for atmospheric fallout was made evident to me in 1980 when North Idaho was the recipient of several inches of ash from Mount St. Helens.

If I recall correctly, one of the most seriously affected counties for contamination downwind of the Hanford nuclear reservation in the 1950’s, was Cascade County. That is Great Falls, in Eastern Montana.

Polycarp , your post has a few misconceptions about neutrons and water in spent fuel pools. First, spent fuel rods do not produce neutons in any significant quantity. Neutrons are only produced by fission. Other than a very small amount of “spontaneous fission” in a subcritial (i.e. not in the reactor, not producing power) spent fuel cell, fisson is not occuring and thus neutrons are not produced and trituim production is not an issue in spent fuel storage pools. The spent fuel rods are, of course, radioactive. This radioactivity is due to decay (gamma, beta and alpha) of long-lived fission products left in the rod. (The fission products are the fragments of the U235 atoms that split releasing energy when the reactor was running.) This radioactivity produces heat (called “decay heat”) that could be enough to melt the fuel cells. The water in the pool is there to cool the rods and remove this heat. It also provides some shielding for the radiation.

Secondly, water is used as the “moderator” in a pressurized water reactor. The water that circulates through the core (called Primary Coolant Water (PCW)) moderates the neutrons primarily not by absorbing excess neutrons, but rather by slowing them down to thermal speeds through inelastic collisions with the hydrogen atoms in the water. Some tritium is produced in the PCW, but the water is very tightly controlled. The PCW does become radioactive, but most of the radioactivity is due to corosion and wear products (think radioactive rust) suspended in the water, not the tritium. PCW is never discharged to the environment.

former Navy Nuc

Good questions, Polycarp.

Here’s an article written by Robert Alvarez for the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists”, a publication by the Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science. Their mission statement:

The linked article goes into some detail about the possible results of a storage pond fire. It doesn’t discuss the enrichment of tritium in the pools or the heated fuel boiling the water off at all. This leads me to think that those things would not happen as Polycarp describes. But its description of the possible results of a fire scared the poop out of me. It’s lengthy, so I won’t quote that here. Read the section “Fire and Water” in the linked article.

So a cooling pond fire would be a horrendous disaster. How could such a fire happen, and what are the chances? From the link:

The article doesn’t discuss the likelihood of any of these things happening. I’m guessing they’re pretty slim. Considering the consequences, even a slim possibility must be accunted for. Is it? Apparently not:

Yikes! But don’t fret, the NRC’s on the job:

FTR I absolutely agree but that wasn’t the question I was responding to.

Ah, right, Padeye. Carry on.

MinkMan, are you near Pittsburgh? If so, then I think I know you.

Polycarp, Water can become radioactive via neutron capture, as you will get some quantity of O[sup]19/20/21/22[/sup], none of which have a half life greater than 27 seconds. In otherwords, it quickly becomes a non-issue. But more importantly, water is hydrogenous. Inelastic collisions moderate most effectively when objects of the same mass collide. Hydrogen is the closest you’re going to get in any practical material to equal mass is hydrogen. This is why polyethelene is used in shielding material: It’s very hydrogenous. The greater the amount of hydrogen in your shielding material, the shorter your migration length is, and the fewer neutrons escape the core before reaching thermal energy.

Shorter migration length means more neutrons are reflected back into the core, increasing the fraction of neutrons available to initiate fission. Remove the water, and and you lose the necessary minimum fraction of thermal neutrons required to sustain a chain reaction, and the whole thing fizzles.

This is why a PWR is inherantly stable: As power rises, the water gets hotter, therefore the water gets less dense, therefore a greater fraction of neutrons escape the core before reaching thermal energy, therefore reactor power goes down. It’s self-regulating to a large degree. In order to increase reactor power and keep it up, you have to add reactivity by removing reaction poisons from the core (shimming control rods “out”), otherwise the reactor will just sit there, humming along at minimal power.

Civil plants generally don’t do much shimming: The critical bank are pulled to the top right away, and the reactor runs at as close to 100% as can be maintained (Reactors are usually used to supply core demand, and are generally inefficient at providing peaking demand). Primary coolant temperature control is managed by shimming control banks, to maintain a desirable primary coolant temperature.

PWRs are very simple. Boiling water reactors are even more simple, and the same general principles apply. Remove the water, and power output immediately drops to <~10% of equilibrium max power (decay heat), and continues to fall as more and more fission products decay away to stable or longer-lived isotopes.


Should read like this:

Sorry about that.

Arrgh! It continues.

“Rising Anxiety” (from the NYTimes)

This is just irresponsible, IMO. I think they could safely say that everyone within a 20-mile radius (plus people downwind) would be in immediate danger (between immediate blast/fallout effects as well as intense traffic/panic, etc.) but that’s a world of difference. We’re talking

50 mile radius = 7850+ square miles affected
20 mile radius = 1250+ square miles affected.

Sorry. Don’t want to turn this into a rant, and lord knows I’m not keen on living so close to Indian Point (which truly is a great risk to the NY Metro area), but I hate this sort of fearmongering. Isn’t the reality bad enough without resorting to gross hyperbole?

While you’re at it, remember that this is a water-moderated reactor. You’re not going to get any kind of a nuclear blast out of it at all (geometry is all wrong), and the worst you might get would be a hydrogen fire or steam explosion, which doesn’t have the energy to throw stuff very far, even if it does breach containment.