The Manhattan Meltdown Scenario

By Caldicott, Helen | Newsweek, April 4, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Manhattan Meltdown Scenario


Caldicott, Helen, Newsweek


Antinuclear activist Helen Caldicott on how New York's nightmare would unfold.

The two operating nuclear reactors known as Indian Point are situated in Buchanan, N.Y.--just 35 miles from midtown Manhattan. More than 17 million people live within 50 miles of these plants.

How might a meltdown start? An earthquake, obviously, is among the scenarios. Others include various forms of terrorist attacks. Regardless of the trigger, a meltdown would follow several specific stages.

First, as cooling water dissipated from the reactor core, intensely hot radioactive pellets in the fuel rods would overheat and swell, and their zirconium cladding would oxidize and rupture. Then the pellets themselves would begin to melt. (Many details described here reflect a study of Indian Point by Edwin S. Lyman.)

If the molten fuel core were to hit the bottom of the reactor vessel, it would trigger massive steam explosions that could blow the reactor vessel apart. The eventual distribution of radioactive elements would depend on several factors, including the weather.

Both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency require an evacuation plan for a 10-mile radius of the reactor: an off-site alarm set to go off 30 minutes after an event began would allow time for the operators to determine the extent of the damage. That would leave 78 minutes from the alarm's sounding to the beginning of the radioactive release.

Early fatalities from acute radiation sickness for those within the 10-mile evacuation zone would range from 2,440 to 11,500. …

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