Here in US we just celebrated Halloween, and the new season of The Walking Dead has just begun so I’ve been thinking a lot about Zombies again. We had a few really good Zombie themed threads over here in the past. We shared our Zombie Survival Plans and designed foolproof Zombie Survival Kits. And we did all of that long before AMC made Zombies mainstream. We were zombie hipsters so to speak.
Here is an interesting topic that hasn’t really been explored in popular fiction: what happens to nuclear plants when zombies take over? Most of the Zombie centric stories out there depict a complete shutdown of the infrastructure and civilization collapse. Without workers, power plants shut down, electricity goes out and survivors have to rely on dwindling supplies of petrol, and alternative electricity sources to power their technology. But nuclear power plants don’t work this way. Once you start a chain reaction, it keeps on going whether the power plant staff is there or not. Not only that, the reactors themselves are more or less self contained and will produce heat and energy for many decades without a need of “refueling”. In a way nuclear power plants are an exception to the rule that during the zombie apocalypse everything shuts down.
The Best Case Scenario
Lets think about it: nuclear power plants are built like small fortresses. Because they are crucial to the infrastructure, and can be potentially dangerous when damaged they are built to keep people out. Only people in and out of them are authorized personnel. If none of the essential staff is bitten, and there is no outbreak happening inside it’s perimeters, a nuclear power plant can very easily serve as a very defensible stronghold for survivors. A stronghold that will have almost unlimited electricity for decades to come.
Once a cure is devised or Zombie hordes are sufficiently thinned out, our power plant can be used to bootstrap industry. People could literally walk into the ruined cities, repair the power lines, re-establish the grid, power up factories and etc allowing small communities to get back to the old way of life almost immediately.
Of course nuclear energy is not magical. While the chain reaction that generates electricity may be self contained, the plant itself is most definitely not. Many of the complex systems that keep the plants safe rely on steady supply of resources from the outside world. For example the coolants that keep the reactor from melting down have to be circulated and recycled. The moving parts of various subsystems must be replaced regularly due to material fatigue.
How long can you keep one running, assuming there are no resources or spare parts coming from the outside? Days? Months? Maybe years. I honestly don’t know. I guess it would vary from plant to plant, some being more dependent on local infrastructure and supplies than other.
What initially looks like a safe heaven for survivors may turn into a deadly trap once the plant starts to run low on resources. Most modern power plants should have fail-safe mechanisms that force them to gracefully shut down in absence of human maintenance. However any plants still running months or years after the initial outbreaks can be assumed to still be maintained either by the original staff. A plant could survive with only a skeleton crew maintaining it, and survivors and newcomers could be trained to perform routine maintenance as well. It is possible that the survivors have disabled many of the fail-safe systems to keep the plant operational. They might hope that in an emergency they will be there to shut it down… But that may not always be the case.
In fact, the lives of the survivors maintaining a power plant might be completely dependent on the success of scavenging crews sent out to procure resources needed to keep the plant running. Perhaps the maintenance crews are deadlocked in a constant struggle to keep the reactor from a meltdown, trying to keep it running at all cost, and often avoiding catastrophe only by mere minutes or via a stroke of luck.
The Worst Case Scenario
Even though many power plants have fail-safe mechanisms, we know that they don’t always work. A good example of this was the recent disaster in Fukushima Japan when a tsunami caused compound equipment failures that resulted in coolant loss and subsequent reactor meltdown. Because of the heroic work of the repair crews a bigger disaster was narrowly avoided, but in a midst of a Zombie apocalypse one would assume that natural disasters could easily cause irreparable damage damage to surviving plants causing catastrophic meltdowns.
Nuclear power plants don’t actually explode the way bombs do. Without adequate cooling reactor simply goes into overdrive. The chain reaction continues produce heat and energy, and it ends up melting the enclosure and causing intense, nuclear powered, long lasting fires (that can spread to consume large swaths of land) accompanied by emission of deadly radiation which will continue long after the pyres burn out. The radioactive smoke and dust can and will be carried by winds creating deadly radiation zones for miles in every direction.
Any living thing near ground zero during or soon after the meltdown likely get a lethal dose of radiation within minutes. Anyone within the fallout zone will probably get radiation poisoning withing hours or days depending on how far away they were from the source, whether or not they had shielding and how fast they got out. Those who succumb to radiation poisoning can be easy pray for the zombies.
Radiation sickness is a bit insidious in the way it works. A group of survivors can walk through an irradiated area without even knowing it. Just walking around is probably not going to expose them to enough radiation to kill them. But if they breathe in the radioactive dust, use the water sources or collect food in a fallout zone it will introduce radioactive particles into their bodies and continue poisoning them long after they leave the area. What is worse, a group that trekked though a fallout area may inadvertently carry the radioactive dust on their clothing and thus expose any community they pass though.
If the group gets exposed to lethal dose of radiation won’t see any symptoms until much later. It is entirely possible for them to fight their way through hordes of zombies, gather supplies, find shelter without even realizing that they are dead men walking. They won’t know anything happened until their hair starts falling out, and their insides start to liquify. There is no cure, and no hope for them at that point. If this is taking place in The Walking Dead universe then all of these unfortunate travelers are bound to turn into Walkers. If we are talking about generic Zombie scenario, then they will simply die a horrible death.
Now, lets imagine a power plant that melted down because an internal breakout. What happens to the zombies that survived the meltdown? Well, they got lethal dosage of radiation many times over, and their flesh is literally falling apart, but that has never really stopped a zombie from rampaging around, has it? So what you end up with are hordes of heavily radioactive undead that don’t only bite but can also expose you to a lethal dose of radiation as you run away from them. They are literally nuclear fallout on legs, that actively seeks out living things to devour. Kinda like the glow-in-the-dark feral Ghouls from Fallout games.
Both of these scenarios open up a lot if interesting adventure hooks for Zombie based games and stories. For example, a group of adventurers may discover a well maintained Nuclear Power Plant stronghold/oasis that provides shelter for a small, happy community only to find out the plant is constantly at the verge of meltdown. Will they join the scavenging crews to supply the failing plant? Will they try to convince the management to shut it down? Will they tell the people living on the premises about the danger, and try to convince them to leave and start anew somewhere else?
Are your players are getting tired of plain old zombies? Are they so efficient at surviving and dispatching walkers that nothing you throw at them is a challenge anymore? Perhaps surviving in a nuclear disaster zone, full of invisible killing fields that limit your mobility, and glow in the dark nuclear zombies that you have to dispatch from afar will be sufficient challenge. Not only that, but having radioactive fallout zones gives both players and NPC’s an opportunity to have a glorious, Spock style death sequence where they get to sacrifice themselves for the greater good via exposure to radiation.
What do you think? What other interesting scenarios could we cook up using the “nuclear power + zombies” theme?