Hope this question doesn't get an FBI file started on me
March 25, 2010 4:26 PM   Subscribe

So let's say a Jack Bauer-type had to stop a terrorist from blowing up a nuclear power plant... Where within the plant might the final showdown take place?

I've never been inside a nuclear power plant myself, so I'm wondering what are the coolest or most dangerous parts of the plant that would make a visually interesting setting for a fight between good and bad guys? Or would provide unexpected ways to kill each other?

For example: I know there are steam generators and nuclear reactors and such, but I'm having trouble visualizing how people might be able to fight WITHIN that space. For example, what would happen to someone that fell into one of those coolant pools? In all that empty inside space, are there any vast pits, readily-accessible radioactive areas, or otherwise super dangerous zones?

Any suggestions or ideas are much appreciated.
posted by np312 to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There would likely be multiple control areas -- your classic "control room" with lots of switches and monitors, but also lesser-known engineering spaces from which a smart person can do most everything (or override everything) done in the main control room.

Think of the plant like a warship. Capturing the bridge is useful, but the real stuff is backed up and doubled down in lots of other places.

Check out the movie The China Syndrome for a fictional thriller set inside a nuclear plant.

what are the coolest or most dangerous parts of the plant

My vote would be the pipes carrying superheated steam. You know, pipes that explode when you open valves and puncture things with bullets and stuff.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:39 PM on March 25, 2010

Interesting question. IAANuclear Engineer. Spent fuel pools are not particularly dangerous from an external standpoint. If you ingested the water, or had open wounds that came into contact with the water in a spent fuel pool, you'd require some medical decontamination to decrease your radioactive dose, but it wouldn't be life threatening with proper care.

Seconding steam pipes. Those are highly pressurized and would likely cause some damage.

The turbine/steam generator rooms are actually very spacious, generally. There would be plenty of space for a showdown, but not particularly dramatic, as there's no exposed unsafe parts.
posted by derogatorysphinx at 5:03 PM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing I forgot: there is a gruesome accident that happened in 1961 during which a control rod impaled an operator to the ceiling. This could potentially be induced during a fight if you had access to the control rod drive mechanism. The bad guy would have to be standing on top of the reactor vessel.
posted by derogatorysphinx at 5:07 PM on March 25, 2010

derogatorysphinx, that accident was recapitulated in The World Is Not Enough, which a lot of people have seen.

If I were a terrorist (OH HAI FBI) the point of hitting a nuke plant would be to create -- well, more usually, to threaten -- a radiological incident, a Three Mile Island or Chernobyl release of radioactive material. More difficult, but if you have access to the plant also possible, would be a meltdown. "Blowing up" would therefore be something more targeted, e.g. at disabling the coolant system.

Chernobyl "blew up", but that design isn't used in the West and was already obsolete in the USSR.

I suppose for sheer drama you'd want an excuse to have a showdown at the top of a cooling tower.
posted by dhartung at 5:50 PM on March 25, 2010

Best answer: I've been in two. I can't comment on the plot but the coolest places were the cooling pools and radiation checkin areas. The pools are surrounded with nifty yellow and black tape that basically says "step past this and you're dead". The Cherenkov radiation in the pools is also cool. The checkin areas are usually just neat because they are high tech and unique, and there's the suspense of finding out how bad you got hit.

Should you happen to find yourself in one filming a virtual tour, do not step beyond that yellow/black tape to get a better shot, even if it is just a few inches. I had double the radiation as everyone else. Still not much damage (1 year in one day) but probably not a good idea anyway.
posted by jwells at 6:05 PM on March 25, 2010

There's anecdotal evidence that the idaho falls 'accident' was actually a result of the operator trying to dose a worker who'd been screwing around with his wife......
posted by Pressed Rat at 6:25 PM on March 25, 2010

Jack Bauer in fiction is entertaining but in practical theory JACK BAUER IS FULL OF CR*P.

Where are Juma's men?
posted by ovvl at 7:19 PM on March 25, 2010

I don't have anything to add other than the showdown dhartung described, atop a cooling tower, happened at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
posted by AtomicBee at 8:11 PM on March 25, 2010

Best answer: I'm guessing a power reactor would have a number of big overhead cranes for things like lifting spent fuel rods/assemblies out of the core and putting them in a cooling area, moving them from there to longer term storage, putting new assemblies in, and so forth.
  1. A terrorist wanting to cause radiation release (presumably using a conventional chemical explosion) could do worse than to target these; the core proper is probably pretty solidly contained
  2. They're BIG GANTRIES AND CRANES, which have a well known attractive effect on cinematographers

posted by hattifattener at 11:18 PM on March 25, 2010

Best answer: "So let's say a Jack Bauer-type had to stop a terrorist from blowing up a nuclear power plant... "

The whole point of U.S. nuclear power plant security these days, is to make sure that whatever confrontations regarding the plant that happen, and whatever breaches of perimeter security occur, result in minimal visible result to the outside world and news media, and efficient, timely elimination of the threat, on premises. Generally, there wouldn't be any visible, recordable result of a nuclear plant intrusion, if counter-measures were truly effective. A terrorist force might be seen attempting to breach the perimeter security, and dying on the fence, or, perhaps, penetrating the fence, and dying in the internal semi-secure zone. If U.S. counter-terrorism measures are realistic, it is unlikely that any ground based terrorist would live to make it to a power building or storage structure.

But I suppose, for fiction's sake, that you can suppose such measures are not real world gamed, constantly, these days, and that the people designing nuclear plant security remain uniformed, under resourced, and unapologetic, from their 2001 state of readiness. A 2001 state of readiness, or earlier, would make a much better movie, I think, at least visually.
posted by paulsc at 11:24 PM on March 25, 2010

Best answer: I had a tour of Sellafield in 2004, and mostly what I remember is that it was a lot less interesting than I had thought it would be.

The control rooms were much as you would imagine - computers, lights, panels on the wall. The turbine hall was full of giant machines, somewhere inside of which were turbines, I would imagine, but from the outside they just look like giant metal machines. No potential for a good bad-guy chopping, alas.

Otherwise there were pipes running everywhere, and lots of high walkways, which might be somewhat helpful. I suspect, though, that in real life a handgun bullet would not be able to penetrate the pipes - they're over-designed to prevent unwanted explosions. There is a Mythbusters episode where they show a relatively small handgun cannot penetrate the metal of a high-pressure gas canister a la James Bond - they needed to step to something pretty heavy duty to get the desired explosion, and I think the steam pipes would be similar.

The only thing I can think of that might be helpful was that they had a large tank of water, open to the air, into which they had tossed all sorts of reactive material when they were working on the development of nuclear weapons during WWII, and weren't too bothered about cataloging what they had discarded. As no-one knows for sure what's down there, no-one knows how to clean it up. So there it sits, with birds landing in it and splashing about and then taking off, which I was assured was entirely safe. Even if a bad guy was tossed into it, I'm guessing from the comments up the thread the worst that would happen is that he'd have long-term radiation poisoning, which wouldn't help your dramatic showdown climax and make for a rather boring sequel.

I was also told that most of the buildings and tanks were secure enough that you could fly a large plane into them, and the result would be a lot less dramatic than you'd expect - limited amounts of radiation to the surrounding areas, rather than a Europe-ending mushroom cloud. Which is moot anyway, as there's a no-fly zone around the plant guarded by anti-aircraft weapons, and they can have fighter-jets in the air over the plant in a few minutes, much less time than it takes for a large plane to reach the plant from when it's first picked up on radar.

So overall, I suspect you'll be resorting to some degree of poetic licence. There were large two-storey-high tanks in one building, which I specifically recall as the tanks had been there for a long time and were starting to weather. So a few years before my visit, they had built a building on rails and slowly slid it into position over the tanks - they couldn't take the chance of normal construction in case something heavy (like a giant concrete slab) was dropped on the tanks. The top of the tanks can open to allow inspection, and so I guess someone could get knocked in there. And they contain what my guide called 'radioactive sludge'. It's not my area of expertise, but that sounds nasty to me.

I suppose there is a plot possibility that the bad guy was trying to rupture the tank with explosives, which requires you to ignore the near-impossibility of strolling in the gate with some C4, but does allow you to explain there's no point in crashing planes into it the plant's buildings.

Anyway, good luck with your story/research! If there's anything more I can help with feel free to MeMail.
posted by StephenF at 6:33 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

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