This list is inspired by the movie Pacific Rim, but don’t misunderstand, I actually love the movie. However there is one MAJOR issue in it that I find inexcusable, and it is an issue that nearly all of the international film industry gets wrong (but mostly Hollywood).
Every damn time someone in a movie mentions that something is powered by a nuclear reactor, you know it is inevitably going to be used as an atomic bomb; there is no end to how much this pisses me off. With how much goddamned money they sink into these things, why is it so hard to have someone sit down and fact check about your linch pin, plot twist, ace in the hole? It is funda-god-damned-mentally impossible for a nuclear powered generator to cause a thermonuclear explosion, because physics, and what it takes to cause one, and fuckin’ A why can’t you lazy ass Hollywood bastards do you homework.
OK, fair warning disclaimer here: this is going to be educational, so bear the fuck with me on this as I am a firm believer that obscenities make everything better, especially education.
Other disclaimer: on a technical / scientific level, this whole thing is garbage; however the fundamental concepts are accurate and the end result is close enough to hit the target.
1. First off, Radiation Is Probably Not What You Think.
What is really going on when something is radioactive is that it has an imbalance in its structure, so little bits of it break free and fly off as it tries to balance itself. Radiation is just particles and bits of energy breaking free from an unstable atom, and then RADIATING off. That is it – radiation is just an action instead of a thing, an adjective instead of a noun, and it is only the TYPE of material RADIATING that makes it bad. Where shit gets fucked up is that those little bits don’t just disappear, they go flying until they smack the shit out of something else, potentially causing whatever they hit to become unstable itself.
Radiological Worker Training Instructor’s Guide, Module 2: Biological Effects, P.26
It may be easier to consider it like this: that asteroid that hit the earth and wiped out all the dinosaurs probably started out as a small moon circling some other planet. Who the hell knows where; probably wasn’t even in our solar system. Then one day it, as it was orbiting, it got going too fast and broke away from its planet’s gravity; RADIATING out into space, going “Wheeeeeeeee.” After a long ass time of “Wheeeeeing” it smashed into the earth and killed all the fuckin’ dinosaurs. That’s what radiation does; it kills all the fuckin’ dinosaurs, or at least that is where most awareness of radiation ends. Here is the thing: that asteroid didn’t kill the dinosaurs; it just changed shit and the dinosaurs died out because they couldn’t adapt. Which sucked for the dinosaurs, but without that change humans wouldn’t be what they are today. Change is not intrinsically evil; it is just change.
2. Fun With Bombs!
Love the bomb.
So radioactive elements are just clumps of unbalanced shit, with even littler shit flaking off to go “Wheeeeing” and killing all the fuckin’ dinosaurs on other elements. How a nuclear bomb works, and this is public information (for any NSA-types reading this), is that you get a clump of radioactive elements and then crush it using explosives, causing all of it to lose its collective shit at one time. The trick is that you have to crush it from every direction, at the same time, to get it to work. Top, bottom, left, right, front, back, and every direction in between has to exert the same exact amount of implosive force, at the same time; something that is not simple to do with shape charges. If you get it wrong then the radioactive element will just squirt out the gap that is causing the least amount of force, like the most lethal diarrhea in the world.
But if you get it right … the force and heat generated, by all that unbalanced shit impacting each other, causes this tiny, sun-like speck of energy; instantly igniting the environment around it before burning itself out in a millisecond.
Trivia to impress your next date: Most of the damage and visual effect we relate to a nuclear explosion is not actually the nuclear part of the explosion – it is the environment being ignited. The nuclear part is just a spark; probably the most powerful spark in the multiverse, but it is still just a spark. Much like popping the ignitor on a grill; if there ain’t no gas, you ain’t gonna do no cooking. The nuclear “pop” in the center of an atomic blast is tiny in comparison to the over all effect, however that pop then instantly burns all that atmosphere in the area around it. That burning atmosphere then causes a shock wave just like hitting the ignitor on your grill when the gas is on, and will cause a *whump* as the excess gas gets burned off. Let’s call it the *whump* of doom.
So there is a big-ass fireball, burning the shit out of everything, and this *whump* of doom blasts out. Then there is nothing; literally, there is nothing left in the spot where the fireball goes off. A nuclear blast is so hot when it goes off, that it burns a pocket of vacuum into the fucking atmosphere of the planet. IT BURNS A POCKET OF VACUUM INTO THE ATMOSPHERE…just think on the gravity of that for a second. Nature abhors a void, so once the physical force of the *whump* of doom dies down, things switch from blow to suck. The atmosphere surrounding the blast floods back in to that void, sucking up any loose material with it. Topsoil, gravel, the ashen remains of a hundred thousand people instantly incinerated; stuff like that. Another law of nature is that hot goes up, while cold goes down, and everything that just got sucked into the post *whump* of doom void is hot enough to make a volcano look slightly warm.
So this newly formed ball of dirt, small rocks and incinerated life rockets up into the sky as it tries to get higher than everything that is colder that it, which is e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. But as it climbs up the outer layers start cooling off and slows down, while the inside of it is still hot and going fast. So the outer layers fold over as the inside pushes on, which creates the mushroom-like shape of, you guessed it, a mushroom cloud.
There is more that goes on after the fireworks; go watch a movie called Barefoot Gen, as it gives a better accounting of life after the bomb than I can detail here.
3. Self-Heating Tea Kettles.
Run for youe lives!
Back to radiation and the “Wheeeing” & “killing all the fuckin’ dinosaurs;” that was just the particles. I also mentioned there was energy too, which I will now get to. Setting something on fire is also a form of radioactive event, but it’s less particles and more energy. When you light a bundle of sticks in a campfire, or throw a burning rag into an abandoned house, you start a chain reaction; the applied heat causes bonds in the material it is applied to to weaken and break apart. When that happens, the act of a bond breaking causes a release of energy which also RADIATES out with the released particle; this energy takes the form of light and more heat. In turn, the released energy can weaken the bonds in surrounding materials, which lights them on fire too … or boils them if they are a liquid.
The unholy spawn of Satan dwelling in the heart of every reactor (AKA Nuclear fuel pellets)
Well, to be technical: solids melt into liquids, liquids boil into gases, and gases burn into particles. Cooling causes that to run in reverse; particles ? gas ? liquid ? solid.
Shit, ass, poop, fart, dickhead; sorry, I realized I was a little behind on my obscenities.
Radioactive elements do the same thing, they are just actively breaking down at a slower rate. So while a burning stick can release all its shit (AKA energy) in a matter of moments, Plutonium 244 takes 80 million years to lose half of its shit. However, just because radioactive elements “burn” at a slower pace, that doesn’t mean that they don’t get hot. Fuck ups at a nuclear power plant aren’t called meltdowns ’cause it sounds cool.
The mental image behind a nuclear power plant is something like the flaming core of the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, and that image is total horse shit. I’ve seen the core of a nuclear power plant – it looks like a big-ass swimming pool. My uncle works in the nuclear power industry, and he took us on a tour of the plant he worked at when I was 14; seeing the core was actually kinda boring. I was more interested in going back to his office so I could play vector tanks on his workstation; No, my priorities have not changed much since then.
I have no idea why all of them have blue lighting.
Radioactive elements produce energy and particles; some of that energy results in heat, however not all radioactive material produces the same type of shit. Some of it produces heat, some of it doesn’t; the type you need to make a nuclear bomb is the type that does not. You take a pile of the shit that makes heat, dump it in a bucket of water, bolt an electric turbine to the bucket; the shit that makes heat boils the water into steam, the steam spins the turbine, the turbine generates electricity, and you you have a power plant. You may also have a bunch of steam laced with shit, but you DO NOT have a potential nuclear bomb just waiting to save our asses from inter-dimensional, hive minded, anal-probing alien invaders.
Hey baby, wanna come back to my place and incubate something?
4. You Keep Using That Word, but I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.
The iconic steam billowing from the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant is not the steam that is laced with shit – it is just normal steam. Nuclear reactors operate on a closed loop; the shit boils the water, the steam spins the turbine, then the steam is piped into a cooling system that condenses the steam back down into water, and then that water is piped back into the bucket of shit to be boiled again. Once a reactor starts boiling water for steam it becomes shit water, but there is no real problem with reusing shit water to make more shit steam. However, cooling off and condensing that shit steam takes quite a bit more than just blowing on it. That is why nuclear power plants are always built near flowing water; to cool off the shit steam they dump the cold ass, flowing water over the (radioactivity shielded) pipes carrying the shit steam.
It is not a perfect system and sometimes the shit gets too hot, but at that point they will insert “control rods” into the bucket to soak up radiation and cool down the reactor. If the earth were different than what it is, that “Wheeing” asteroid that “killed all the fuckin’ dinosaurs” could have ended up going *boink* instead of *boom*. Like if the earth had actually been Jupiter; Jupiter has no fuckin’ dinosaurs to kill, and it is so big that it would have eaten that asteroid like a gumdrop. There are other elements out there that can eat radiation like Jupiter can eat asteroids; when you stuff those types of elements into the core of a nuclear power plant, it eats up the radiation and shuts down the reactor.
Quick, to the nuclear bomb refrigerator!
Now let’s do like Hollywood does; pull out all the control rods and shut down the cooling system. OH MY FUCKING GOD, IT IS GOING TO MELTDOWN, IT IS GONNA FUCKING MELT DOWN AND … melt. If you let the engine in your car overheat, does it explode and flip your car into the air? Well, it does if it is a movie car, so a nuclear power plant turning into an atomic bomb isn’t that far out of form for Hollywood. In the real world, all that will happen is that your engine block will melt, or at least warp, until the pistons can’t fire anymore and it shuts down. A nuclear reactor does much the same thing, only it is more shitty and poisonous. The excess heat will boil off all the water in the shit bucket and the pressure will then cause the reactor to “blow up,” but it is a steam based pressure explosion instead of a nuclear bomb.
The roof may blow off, radioactive shit will spill out, and then the radioactive fuel that is overheating will just sit there until it decays into something stable. Yes, that will fuck up the environment around it, and it will fuck it up quite badly at that, but it will not explode. So, a nuclear generator is really just a big ass, self heating, self refilling, tea kettle with a turbine attached to make electricity when it starts whistling.
The next time Hollywood spits out some flick with a dramatic pause and inflection pointing out that they have a nuclear reactor just waiting to blow up, mentally edit that out and replace it with “tea kettle” to see why this issue pisses me off.
5. When It Does Go Wrong.
Most nuclear power plants are actually built so that if they do melt down, they will melt down in a way that collapses the building onto the core of the reactor, forming a limited cap to restrict the amount of radioactive contamination. Typically, that will not happen; there are systems in place where operators can flood the reactor core with control rod like compounds that will irreversibly smother the radioactive fuel into a near inert form. For a nuclear reactor to critically melt down, you pretty much have to be intentionally causing it. Like the dipshits at Chernobyl; those dumb fucks shut off the control systems just to see what would happen, and then found out that their crappy system wouldn’t turn back on when it started to go to hell.
6. War Is Always Changing; It Is the Political Bullshit Behind It That Is Stagnant.
Back to the issue of nuclear bombs: they are not actually as powerful as portrayed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki got the shit blown out of them because most of their buildings were built out of sticks. If a modern urban environment were to be hit with a thermonuclear weapon, the damage would be dramatically less, uhh, dramatic. Buildings constructed out of reinforced concrete will not crumble to ash like something built from wood; they melt, they sag, some of the bigger ones would come down just like the World Trade Center did, and good god the NSA is going to be all up in my ass for this. Urban buildings would also soak up and deflect much of the emitted radiation, resulting in far less (or less severe) cases of radiation poisoning. It will not be happy, happy, fun time; but neither will it be the Mad Max-like total devastation inspired by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
7. Nuclear Weapons Also Won’t Work in Space, and Michel Bay Is a Dumb Fuck.
When a nuke goes off, it has to have something fueling it to cause any real damage. In the air, a nuke goes *kaboom* because the air is flammable. In the water, a nuke goes *woosh* because the water can boil. In space, a nuke goes *fizz* because there ain’t shit up there. If you want a nuclear weapon to cause any sort of effect beyond a healthy spark, you will have to pack a shit ton of extra material around it for it to burn when it goes off. They are called “THEROMO-NUCLEAR,” and “thermo” means “heat.” A nuclear weapon is a big-ass heat weapon, but if it has nothing to burn it can’t do shit.
That asteroid in Armageddon would have been composed of largely inert compounds baked by solar radiation for millions of years; there is no way that thing would have been suitable environmental fuel for a nuclear blast. In order to generate the depicted / required detonation to to break up the asteroid they would have had to ship up several tons of fissionable material (like hydrogen) with it as fuel. Which they sure as hell didn’t do, and they may as well have depicted blowing that thing up by shooting it with a hand gun.
8. Nuclear Waste Is Bad, M’kay.
Yes, nuclear waste is “bad” for the environment, but have you ever seen the aftermath of a mountain strip-mined for coal? How about that “oil spill” in the gulf of Mexico – beautiful right? Even hydroelectric dams cause hell for the environment, both up and down stream from the dam itself. Solar cells involve some highly caustic chemicals to manufacture and can not be repaired when they burn out, resulting in both toxic and physical waste over time. Even wind turbines involve a sizable manufacturing industry to produce, and then are selectively ineffective as you need a perfect spot for them to even work.
There is no such thing as “clean” energy; even a wood fire causes smoke and holds the potential for mass destruction when not controlled. Nuclear waste can (and will) cause environmental harm without proper treatment, but that goes for everything. The biggest toxic waste issue humanity has ever had to deal with was how to deal with our own shit and piss, which took research and study to find a viable solution, not adopting the policy of “just don’t do it.” Despite having a much higher threat from losing control than conventional energy sources, nuclear energy actually produces far less waste byproducts per the amount of power produced. Efficiency with high threat and complex / demanding controls vs inefficient but easy to control and low perceived threat; there is no give without a take.
Keep in mind that Hiroshima and Nagasaki currently sport a combined population of 1.5 million people, the Three Mile Island reactor is still operational today, and you can sign up for a guided tour to walk around Pripyat city (Chernobyl) in street clothes.
9. Appropriate Alternatives for Fictitious Power Sources.
… and then we freeze it at the point of bullshit, then get on with the show.
Two words: fission & fusion; these, dear Hollywood, are the words you are looking for. Technically they both apply to nuclear reactions, but neither really apply to what you are depicting when you blow up a nuclear power plant. Fission is when things release energy when they break apart. Which is the reaction at the heart of a nuclear generator, but it is only harvesting the byproduct heat to boil water. A real fission reactor would be one that applies some force onto a material, causing the material to erupt in directly harvestable energy. A fusion reactor would be one that crushes material together, squeezing energy out of it. An example of fusion is to rapidly freeze the fuck-shit out of something so that it releases energy as it compresses – this is called cold fusion, it is total bunk, and does not work, but that never stopped you guys before.
Please use one of those two options the next time you need a magic power supply, or just make some shit up instead of bullshiting real science. But please, never again blow up another nuclear generator.
Previously by Holden Hodgdon: