After publishing plans for building a basement fallout shelter many readers commented that they did not have a basement… well all is not lost, because you can still build an above ground fallout shelter.
Survivalist Blog download – How to Build a Fallout Shelter in You Basement.
FAMILY FALLOUT SHELTERS
By Dr. Arthur T. Bradley
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there are sixty-one active commercial nuclear plants spread across the United States. A question on the minds of many is what would happen to those plants if the nation experienced a widespread, long-lasting power outage? Let me start by saying that there is a quite a bit of misinformation on the web about this subject, so my advice is to be careful about what you choose to believe.
Many of you may know that I have a background in science and engineering (Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering), so I believed that if I could talk with a knowledgeable person working in the nuclear power industry, I could get to the bottom of this question. To find answers, I consulted Jim Hopson, the Manager of Public Relations at the Tennessee Valley Authority. As readers may point out, it was in Mr. Hopson’s interest to assure me that nuclear plants are safe, but to be fair, I found him to be forthright about the industry’s safeguards and vulnerabilities.
Probably the best place to start is with a basic discussion of how a nuclear power plant operates. There are two types of reactors in the U.S., boiling water reactors (BWRs) and pressurized water reactors (PWRs). For purposes of our discussion, the differences in their operation aren’t terribly important. Nuclear reactors use an atomic process called fission to generate heat. The heat is then used to create steam that turns large turbines to generate electricity. The steam is later condensed and returned in a closed-loop process within the reactor system.
The nuclear reaction itself is beyond the scope of this brief write up (and my expertise), but the gist is that an energetic neutron is absorbed by a uranium-235 nucleus, briefly turning it into a uranium-236 nucleus. The uranium-236 then splits into lighter elements, releasing a large amount of energy. The physical system inside the reactor consists of tens of thousands of nuclear fuel rods placed into a water bath. The rods are essentially long metal tubes filled with ceramic nuclear pellets that are bundled together into larger assemblies. Trivia bit… a nuclear fuel pellet is about the size of a pencil eraser but equivalent in energy to one ton of coal.
The risks of nuclear power are many, but two stand above the rest. The first is that the fuel assemblies in the reactor might overheat. That would only occur if the fission process became uncontrolled or if the cooling system failed. Should overheating occur, the fuel rods’ zirconium cladding and nuclear materials could both melt, resulting in a nuclear sludge akin to molten lava. That slag would be so hot that it might melt through the bottom of the reinforced reactor. Eventually, it would cool enough to harden, but not before it had spewed nuclear contaminants into the air. Melting zirconium also releases hydrogen, which could lead to an explosion that might actually expel the nuclear material into the surrounding area—think Fukushima.
The good news is that nuclear fission can be stopped in under one second through the insertion of control rods. Those control rods are automatically inserted near the fuel rods either by a hydraulic system or through the use of an electromagnetic deadman switch that activates when power is removed. That means that when the electrical grid goes down or an emergency shutdown is initiated, fission would automatically stop one second later. That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t make the reactor inherently safe. Even without fission, the fuel rod assemblies remain incredibly hot, perhaps a thousand degrees C. If they were not actively cooled, pressure and temperatures would build in the reactor until something breaks—not good. After three days of active cooling, however, the reactor would be thermally cool enough to open, should it be deemed necessary to remove the fuel rod assemblies.
The second major risk has to do with cooling of the spent fuel rod assemblies. Nuclear fuel rod assemblies have a usable life on the order of 54-72 months (depending on reactor type). Every 18-24 months, the reactor is brought down and serviced. While it is down, the fuel rod assemblies are removed, and 1/3 of them are replaced with fresh assemblies. Think of this like rotating cans of food in your emergency pantry. In the U.S., fuel rods are not refurbished like in other countries. Instead, they are carefully stored in giant pools of water laced with boric acid—imagine a swimming pool at your local YMCA that is 75-feet deep. Those spent fuel rod assemblies are still incredibly radioactive, and they continue to generate heat. Water in the pool must therefore be circulated to keep them cool. How long must the fuel rods be cooled? According to Mr. Hopson, the answer is 5-7 years. After that, the rods are cool enough to be removed and stored in reinforced concrete casks. Even then, the rods continue to be radioactive, but their heat output can be passively managed.
Nuclear plants obviously require electricity to operate their cooling pumps, not to mention their control systems. That power is normally tapped off of the electricity that the reactor generates. If the plant is offline, the power is provided by the electrical grid. But what happens when the grid itself goes down? The short answer is that large on-site diesel generators automatically activate to provide electricity. And if those should fail, portable diesel generators, which are also on-site, can be connected. Recent standardization has also ensured that generators can be swapped between plants without the need to retrofit connectors.
There are also a couple of additional emergency systems that can be used specifically to cool the reactor. These include the turbine-driven-auxiliary-feedwater pump, which uses steam generated by the reactor to power a cooling turbine. The pump requires an operator, but it runs completely without electricity. This system, however, is meant only for emergency cooling of the reactor during those critical first few days when the fuel rod assemblies are being brought down in temperature, not for long-term cooling. And finally, in the worst case, most plants have a method of bringing in river or ocean water to flood the reactor. This typically damages the cooling system, but again, it helps to cool and cover the reactor core should all else fail. Unlike in other countries, permission from the federal government is not required to flood the reactor.
With backup systems to the backup systems, it would seem that there’s nothing to worry about, right? Under all but the direst of circumstances, I think that assessment is correct. However, one could imagine a scenario in which the grid was lost and the diesel generators ran out of fuel. Speaking of fuel, how much is actually stored onsite? It depends on the plant, but at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, for example, there is enough fuel to run the emergency diesel generators for at least 42 days. I say at least because it would depend on exactly what was being powered. Once the reactor was cooled down, a much smaller system, known as the Residual Heat Removal System, would be all that was required to keep the fuel assemblies cool, both in the reactor and the spent fuel rods pool. The generators and onsite fuel supply could power that smaller cooling system for significantly longer than if they were powering the larger reactor cooling system. Even if we assumed a worst case of forty-two days, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which that would not be enough time to bring in additional fuel either by land, water, or air. Nonetheless, let’s push the question a little further. What would happen in the unlikely event that the diesel fuel was exhausted?
Even with the reactor having been successfully cooled, the biggest risk would continue to be overheating of the fuel rod assemblies, both in the reactor and the spent fuel rods pool. Without circulation, the heat from the fuel rod assemblies could boil the surrounding water, resulting in steam. In turn, the water levels would drop, ultimately exposing the fuel rods to air. Once exposed to air, their temperatures would rise but not to the levels that would melt the zirconium cladding. Thankfully, that means that meltdown would not occur. The steam might well carry radioactive contaminants into the air, but there would be no release of hydrogen and, thus, no subsequent explosions. The situation would certainly be dangerous to surrounding communities, but it wouldn’t be the nuclear Armageddon that many people worry about.
The bottom line is that in the event of a long-duration blackout, several things would need to occur. First, fission would need to be halted by the insertion of control rods, a process that takes less than one second. Next, the reactor would need to be cooled for at least three days using the large diesel engines to provide electrical power. After that, the fuel rods would be cool enough that the reactor could be opened, and the plant’s Residual Heat Removal System could be used to provide cooling. That smaller system would need operate for 5-7 years to ensure that the fuel rod assemblies, both in the reactor and in the spent fuel rods pool, didn’t overheat. Only then could the fuel rod assemblies be moved to concrete casks for dry storage and final dispositioning. During those 5-7 years, electricity in one form or another would be required. If it was not maintained, radioactive contamination could be released into the air, but the temperatures of the fuel rods would not be high enough to cause a complete meltdown or the dangerous release of hydrogen.
The point of this article wasn’t to convince anyone that nuclear power generation is safe. I would argue that history has already proven that it comes with some very serious risks. Rather, it was to discuss the impact of a long-duration blackout. Specifically, it focused on the safeguards that are currently in place, and more importantly, discussed the magnitude of the catastrophe that might result if we allowed those safeguards to fail.
Arthur T. Bradley, Ph.D.
Author of the Handbook to Practical Disaster Preparedness for the Family, Prepper’s Instruction Manual, Disaster Preparedness for EMP Attacks and Solar Storms, and the Survivalist Series
Today we present another article in our non-fiction writing contest – By Ron G
Think of this as a primer if you will. It is written to cover the basics that will matter most to you as a prepper. I am intentionally leaving out a lot of technical jargon; there are others willing to throw that out at you. There will be some terms and concepts that do need to be understood. One I will use a lot is Ground Zero (GZ).
Ground Zero is that point on the surface of the earth directly under, at, or over, a nuclear detonation. Your location, distance, and direction, from GZ is very important.
It’s important that you understand that there are four types of nuclear detonations or “burst”. Sub Surface Burst, Surface Burst, Air Burst, and High Altitude Burst.
All nuclear burst will produce the same basic effects, blinding light, tremendous heat, massive blast wave, radiation, and the electro magnetic pulse. However, the type of burst will greatly determine the degree of each effect upon the target.
A Sub Surface Burst is one that occurs underground in which the fireball produced does not break thru to the atmosphere. The ground will shake and there may be a surface collapse at GZ but on the surface there will be no radiation or EMP released or blast wave. Really nothing to be concerned with and I mention it only because they have been used during weapons design testing programs in the past.
A Surface Burst is a detonation on or near enough to the surface where the fireball touches the earth’s surface. This is the one we almost always see in the movies and in illustrations for articles like this. There will be a brilliant flash of light, a massive fireball, and an intense outward-bound blast wave outward from GZ. As the fireball starts to rise a second blast wave, this time returning towards GZ, arrives and brings with it massive amount of debris. This debris is forced upward into the fireball and creates the stem of the familiar “Mushroom Cloud”. At GZ there is total destruction and depending on the size, design of the weapon, and to a degree the terrain, the area of total destruction can be considerable. Large areas of partial and incomplete destruction will extend even further.
Meanwhile the Mushroom Cloud continues to rise through the atmosphere, the stem discontinues and temperatures inside the fireball start to cool down. As it cools the prevailing winds will start to push the fireball downwind. Material inside the fireball, now radioactive, cools and starts to fall, largest, heaviest material first. By the time it reaches 30,000 feet the fireball will appear to be just another cloud but this cloud will be leaving behind a trail of radioactive fallout for several hundred miles.
GZ will not be survivable and will be radioactive for a long time. The further away from GZ you are the better your chances. A safe distance downwind will be much further than a safe distance cross or upwind.
An Air Burst is a detonation in which the fireball does not touch the surface of the earth. It has all the other characteristics of a Surface Burst but there is no Mushroom Cloud and most important there will be no significant fallout. What the Air Burst will do however is create a much larger area of destruction. It does this by creating three blast waves.
As the expanding blast wave (or initial wave) strikes the surface of the earth, it is reflected off the ground to form a second shock wave traveling behind the first. This reflected wave travels faster than the initial wave since it is traveling through air already moving at high-speed due to the passage of the initial wave. The reflected blast wave will merge with the initial wave to form a single wave. This is called a Mach wave. The over-pressure at the front of the Mach wave is generally about twice as great as that at the initial blast wave. If you have trouble picturing this try thinking of a ripple hitting the edge of a calm pond. This deflected wave becomes a second wave. The third wave will be the displaced air mass returning to GZ.
These types of detonation will double the area of destruction without the messy fallout. You can see the military advantage of this type of detonation. GZ will not be survivable but will not be radioactive for long. The distance from GZ you will need to survive the destructive blast are much greater but fallout will not be an issue.
Last of all is the High Altitude Burst. A detonation above 100,000 feet is a High Altitude Burst. No blast damage. No fallout. Your personal physical threat from this would be the potential flash blindness from the initial burst. The purpose of this type of detonation is the Electro Magnetic Pulse.
Lets review. A Sub Surface Burst is really not a military option. Surface or Air Burst, if you are at or are too close to GZ you are either toast or soon to be toast. If it was an Air Burst fallout is not a threat. If it was a Surface Burst and you are located far enough up or cross wind you should be in good shape. If you are downwind…
Fallout. Fallout is material that was made temporarily radioactive in the fireball through a process called ionization. It has a known decay rate.
There are multiple layers in the atmosphere; each layer is capable of having different wind speeds and directions. As the fireball becomes a fallout cloud and raises and lowers thru each layer the winds in that layer will have an effect. Lower levels will have less effect while upper levels will have more. In predicting where the fallout will go it helps to be a weatherman. Generally Continental US weather patterns flow from the South to North and West to East. But, there are seasonal variations. Understanding Highs and Lows and where you are in relation to them, would be useful information. Knowing that your westerly winds are the lower part of an upper level low that is moving south you can determine that the fallout will mostly travel south and east. (I once had to explain why surface winds have no effect to an Air Force General. The Major who ran the DoD weather school just sat there and grinned.
Fallout Protection is all about Time, Distance, and Shielding. The longer it takes for fallout to arrive the less there will be. If you are in a safe space, the longer you wait to go out the less you will be exposed to. The greater the distance between you and fallout that has arrived the less radiation you will be exposed to. The more mass between you and the fallout the less radiation will reach you. I think everyone understands these concepts well enough.
The next topic is very important. Targeting in Nuclear War.
In an all out war the first strikes will be against an enemy’s ability to strike back. Missile Silos, Bomber and Submarine Bases, and Command and Control Centers will be the first targets. Major military bases, seaports and manufacturing centers would be secondary. In a nuclear war most targets are going to be hit with Air Burst. Let me say it again. In a nuclear war most detonations are going to be Air Burst. (ICBM Silos and Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado will be exceptions to this). Fallout will be a problem, but probably not to the extent most of us think. Nuclear Winter? Forget about it. Totally made up bull!
One last thing, if you are outdoors and see an unexplainable, sudden, intense, flash of light and cannot identify the source, immediately drop to the ground, close your eyes, and cover your ears and open your mouth. You want to protect against flash blindness and the oncoming over-pressure of the blast wave. Remember, there will be a second blast wave in the opposite direction, so don’t be in a hurry to get up. Of course you may be far enough away that the wave(s) may never get there. Count that as a blessing.
M.D. Creekmore adds : If you’re interested in learning more about this subject (you should be) then I suggest that you order a copy of Nuclear War Survival Skills: Lifesaving Nuclear Facts and Self-Help Instructions…
Prizes For This Round (Ends December 21 2015) In Our Non Fiction Writing Contest Include…
- First place winner will receive – A gift certificate for $150 off of any bulk ammo at Lucky Gunner, three bottles of Fish Cillin – Ampicillin 250mg (100 Count) courtesy of Camping Survival, and a WonderMill Electric Grain Mill courtesy of Chef Brad Revolution.
- Second Place Winner will receive – 30 Day Food Storage All-in-One Pail courtesy of Augason Farms.com.
- Third place winner will receive – A copy of my book “31 Days to Survival” and a copy of “Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat“.
Please read the rules that are listed below BEFORE emailing me your entry… my email address can be found here – please include “writing contest entry” in the subject line.