What happens to nuclear power plants during a Zombie Apocalypse

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.

Zombies

Zombies are back in season.

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.

Nuclear Power Plant

Nuclear Power Plants are built to be defensible and keep unwanted people out.

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.

Power Plant

They are unmistakable landmarks that can be used as beacons and navigational aids by survivors. A smoke coming out of these stacks means “civilization”.

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 meltdown is usually just a huge fire accompanied by radiation, rather than a violent explosion.

Nuclear meltdown is usually just a huge fire accompanied by radiation, rather than a violent explosion.

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.

Glowing Zombie

I guess actual radioactive zombies wouldn’t glow in the dark. That’s not how radiation works… But this is pop culture, so I guess we can make them glow. If nothing this will make them easy to recognize and avoid.

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?

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16 Responses to What happens to nuclear power plants during a Zombie Apocalypse

  1. Most modern power plants should have fail-safe mechanisms that force them to gratefully shut down in absence of human maintenance.

    It’s nice to hear that the reactors would be so thankful about shutting down. :-)

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  2. Ron NEW ZEALAND Google Chrome Linux says:

    Well this would be pretty simple for me, I live in nuclear free NZ (no power generators, no docking for nuclear powered ships) so simply not an option, which given the size of the country (two islands and as such a meltdown would certainly effect at least one major fresh water source and probably one or even both sides of the surrounding sea), agriculture being our main export, plenty of renewable resources (thou we still have coal plants sadly), is definitely the right call here.

    The coal plants would be pretty unworkable, would be very hard (or impossible) to maintain the hydro or geo-thermal plants, due to the new environment and very specialised knowledge. There may be some potential in wind or solar, but they could also attract other survivors who may want to go Mad Max or I guess Woodberry is more now.

    We could still be effected by nuclear fallout in the ocean currents as well thou.

    In the setting of an apocalypse thou, the nuclear generators may continue to run, but how long would the infrastructure connecting them to cities continue to work? What happens when you disconnect an active nuclear generator from the grid?

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  3. StuartB UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Nuclear power removes, largely, the one thing that I absolutely hate about zombie movies, books, tv shows, etc:

    Stupidity.

    It all goes to crap because of stupidity. There have been numerous perfect scenarios that in the real world would have been sustainable. But no. Stupidity. For the sake of drama, action, whatever, the author or director has to introduce stupidity.

    Nuclear power would stave off a lot of that. How quickly could humans adapt to medieval type of villages and protectorship, high walls, castles, lots of swords, fast moving horses, appropriate armor of some type. It quickly becomes an alternate historical fiction but with a zombie twist. Makes complete sense to me that humans could build a walled off area of several hundred acres, complete with farm land, dams, villages, etc. But then eventually some lord would build a manor, some peasant would rebel, and some idiot would put a hole in the wall just to teach those lords and ladies a lesson.

    Stupidity.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Chris Wellons:

    Yes, they would be totally grateful for not having to melt down and become a pile of ash. Makes perfect sense. :P

    @ Ron:

    The infrastructure out in the surrounding areas may or may not break faster than the plants themselves. I guess it really depends on how robust it is. If we are talking suburbs, then a downed branch from a tree can easily knock out bunch of cables and take out a few blocks. No one will be there to fix them. In fact, people will likely be crashing cars into the electric poles in the early days, and stripping the cables to get copper in the later days. Places with shielded underground cabling may last longer But, yeah, a plant may outlive its neighborhood.

    As for what happens when you disconnect a plant from the grid – not much. It keep on spinning. The energy generated by the chain reaction is typically captured in the form of work done by some turbines or other mechanical contraptions. It’s not like you need to siphon the electricity out least it “overflows”. Plus I believe that you can slow down the reaction by lowering control rods into the reactor, that tamper it. So I imagine you could put it in “simmer” mode if you are only planning to use it to power the immediate installation.

    @ StuartB:

    Well, not necessarily stupidity. I’d say what you describe is human nature at work. We have seem this pattern throughout the history. Since anarchy is unsustainable, communities that do not establish functional democracies tend to undergo rapid stratification. Key groups that have leadership roles or control important resources evolve into aristocracy and are given public mandate of enforcing law and order. They typically seek to retain that power indefinitely, thus leading to creation of caste/class systems in which the bottom of the social pyramid is systemically disenfranchised. Such systems tend to be highly unstable and if the leaders squeeze to hard (or not hard enough) they might face rebellions, which if successful lead to another period of anarchy. Democracies also undergo stratification pressures but they have a built in pressure valve which allows for peaceful and organized transfer of power.

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  5. MrPete GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    J.L. Bourne has written a series of diary-style books, in german they’re called “Tagebuch der Apokalypse”, I think they’re Day by Day Apocalypse in (original) english.
    He had the military throw nukes on the US zombie population centers – read: mayor cities – and that resulted in a pretty funny sort of zombie.
    The normal zombie is the usual shambling though never exhausting foe that will loose track if you manage to run long enough and deteriorates with every day due to decomposing.
    The radioactive zombies on the other hand have been preserved with most of their decomposition stopped by humanly lethal doses of radiation, creating a far more mobile and somewhat smarter foe…

    As for nuclear plants:
    You can pretty much stall the chain reaction by inserting the control rods – which despite many movies stating differently will just fall down into the reaction chamber should their control system go offline. Then you get a moderately hot bassin of water that should remain stable as long as the water lost to evaporation or heating is replaced.
    But it will stay that way for a very long time, basically until the fuel rods are exhausted, so you need a very large supply of water. And the water in the bassin becomes radioactive over time, so you won’t be able to use it as fresh water supply…

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  6. I paid a lot of attention to that factor as I wrote the Aftermath Zombie series. Fact is, with over a quarter of the world’s nuclear power plants, America alone would start a nuclear winter.

    To get a better understanding of nuclear power you really have to go back through the history of nuclear energy. There was a big to do about radiation research and weapons development when America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until then, most individuals believed that war was good because it created new industry and various inventions that propelled mankind’s development.

    Nuclear energy was pressured at this point to produce something commercially viable to support the mass financial expenditures in the Manhattan project. There was sort of a race to develop nuclear energy which included competition between America and then USSR.

    The inherent problem, which is obvious with past nuclear disasters, is that when nuclear power goes wrong, nuclear power goes REALLY wrong. Areas around nuclear disasters are rendered unsafe for human population for decades and centuries. Fail safes are only rated for events that are predictable which excludes any “acts of god” or in this case a zombie apocalypse. Many obviate the simple premise that once a nuclear reaction begins, it keeps going and going and going. We still are unsure what to do with the waste from nuclear reactions.

    National Geographic did an episode called Aftermath Population Zero in which they stated, if I remember correctly, that it would take three to six months before nuclear power plants went critical. Considering that Chernobyl took out an area about the size of Arizona, America and indeed the entire global population would most likely suffer nuclear fallout of some sort, either carried on the wind or by direct contact.

    In my book, to get around this harsh fact, the last act of the President of the United States was to send the military to encapsulate the nuclear power plants so that this menace wouldn’t threaten all life. One of the main characters also uses alternative energy sources that could have been available before the apocalypse in order to prevent such disasters.

    So, as I stated earlier, the sad truth is we will most likely all die horrible deaths or become irradiated zombies in about three to six months time.

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  7. KevinFFF Google Chrome Linux says:

    Richard and those predicting massive meltdowns and cataclysmic disaster are incorrect. Modern nuclear power plant design in the US would make such an outcome extremely unlikely. There are multiple safety and fail safe mechanisms in place to deactivate and wind down a NPP in the event that humans can not do so manually. There are even mechanical safeties in place in the event of total electrical loss (in a hypothetical EMP scenario.)

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  8. ben vidgen Google Chrome Windows says:

    To bad if the reactor is plutonium based and gets nailed by a tsunami quake etc – because then were all toast.

    But what about all the dangerous chemicals and toxin in protective storage that be released into the environment once power shut down.

    Oh and fact as most develop nation remove lead from petrol most petrol would break down in about month or two meaning good bye automobile transport.

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  9. Rob Mullen Safari Mac OS says:

    It’s not so much the reactors them selves you need to worry about, as people have said, they have fail safe systems built in, it’s the reprocessing facilities that deal with the old fuels from reactors, as they deal with extremely concentrated highly radioactive substances, usually in a liquid form, and and generally just stored in bulk awaiting conditioning and storage, if one these facilities were to fail, you are talking about fallout radii of 100’s or even 1000’s of miles depending upon the stocks at the time of failure, the most likely failure being upon a loss of air recirculating leading to radiolytic hydrogen building up and eventually the entrained heat from the radioactive materials igniting the hydrogen rich atmosphere, and boom, there’s 1000’s of Sv of radioactive particulates in the atmosphere to be blown around and rained down wherever the wind sees fit to blow.

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  10. Dmitriy SWEDEN Google Chrome Windows says:

    @ Richard Schwarz:
    You guys miss one important thing. NPP are defended by armed troops(and quite large and well armed one, its composition are state secret, but there is enough troops to repel attack of couple of hundreds terrorists). They are far from large population habs(nearby city would be 25-30 thousands most probably). All routes out of NPP and the nearby city are designed to be easy blocked in case of emergency. In case of Zombie invasion it would be one of the safest place. At least in Russia it is so.

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  11. Dennis Google Chrome Windows says:

    A reply to the picture of the glowing ghoul

    – Actually radiation can produce what seems like a glow when a radioactive substance or radioactive material, or something that has absorbed radiation is surrounded by water. “This is called Cherenkov radiation. This happens when the radiation from the radioactive material goes into a material such as glass or water. Because the speed of light in this material is relatively slow (compared to the maximum speed of light in a vacuum), the radiation is actually traveling faster than light can travel in that material, and so it gives off light as it slows down. But to actually see this glow, it usually takes something which is very radioactive, such as the internal parts of a nuclear reactor. Weak Cherenkov light can be made from smaller amounts of radioactivity. Usually, sensitive devices have to be used to detect it.”

    Know that we know what Cherenkov radiation is, let’s take the focus elsewhere. Zombies, as we know, zombies are dead human beings where the virus or parasite or whatever uses the body as a host, now, a human body consists of 60 – 70 percent water. And as stated above, Cherenkov radiation can only glow if there is water present, surrounding the radioactive material/substance. So therefore we can conclude that if a radioactive zombie, or a ghoul from the Fallout universe has absorbed so much radiation, that it has enough radioactive tissue, bones, blood or whatever to send of a glow. We also know that biological cells die if exposed to, too much radiation so therefore the cells in the creature need to be resistant to or absorbing of radiation so that it won’t die. And also that the skin is thin enough to actually be able to see the visible glow, and as stated on the Fallout wikia:

    The distinctive luminescence that is the trademark of the glowing one can be best attributed to an unusually high amount of radioactive material that builds up in the bloodstream and muscle tissue of a typical ghoul. Sometimes, upon the transformation into a feral ghoul, the neurological systems of the body cease filtering these particles from the blood and tissue, instead causing them to build a distinctive bio-luminescence that is a characteristic of the “glowing ones”. In daylight they simply appear to be incredibly pale feral ghouls, but in darkness they glow with a vivid yellow-green hue, their opaque skeletons clearly visible as in an X-ray. Approaching a deceased glowing one can cause minor exposure to radiation

    Or another theory could be:

    Simply defined, bioluminescence is “light produced by a chemical reaction” that “originates in an organism” (Haddock et al. 2006). The term bioluminescence originates from the Greek bios for “living” and the Latin lumen for “light.”

    Bioluminescence is a form of luminescence, or “cold light” emission; less than 20 percent of the light generates thermal radiation. Bioluminescence should not be confused with fluorescence or phosphorescence. In fluorescence, the molecular absorption of a photon triggers the emission of another photon with a longer wavelength. In other words, the energy originates from an external source of light, which is absorbed and almost immediately emitted (Haddock et al. 2006). In phosphorescence, the material absorbs an external source of light as well, but does not immediately re-emit the radiation it absorbs. The absorbed radiation may be re-emitted at a lower intensity for up to several hours.

    Chimiluminescence (or chemoluminescence) is the general term for production of light via a chemical reaction, and thus bioluminescence is a subset of chemiluminescence, but where the light-producing chemical reaction occurs inside an organism (Haddock et al. 2006).

    Bioluminescence is generated by an enzyme-catalyzed chemoluminescence reaction, wherein the pigment luciferin is oxidized by the enzyme luciferase. In other words, the chemical luciferin is the one that produces light and the chemical luciferase is the one that drives, or catalyzes, the reaction (Haddock et al. 2006). Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is involved in most instances. The chemical reaction can occur either within or outside of the cell.

    In bacteria, the expression of genes related to bioluminescence is controlled by an operon (key nucleotide sequence) called the Lux operon

    So here you have it, with reference to the Fallout ghoul “glowing one” and a possible explanation of glowing zombies, whether radioactive or not.

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  12. Richard AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    What a strange article “I don’t know, I guess…” Why write if you don’t know?
    Unmanned reactor: The reactor would scram if left unmanned (auto shut down). However because of decay heat it must be cooled. Cooling systems would run for a week maybe two before the diesel ran out. Core exposure within a few hours. Meltdown. Possible hydrogen explosion depending on the variables. Either way containment breach within 2 weeks followed by massive release of radiation. There are ~ 500 nuclear reactors around the world. Many of them old and dilapidated.

    The other elephant in the room no one talks about is the HLW cooling ponds. Possibly because it’s even bigger than the first elephant? A reactor contains a few hundred tons of fuel. Cooling ponds can contain thousands of tons of highly radioactive hot spent fuel and there are many more of them. Within a week the cooling ponds would go into meltdown as the generators fail. Within a few months all human life will cease to exist. That part I can live with. What I can’t handle is how bunch of dumb schmucks managed to destroy this beautiful planet and no one knew. Very depressing.

    Our immediate best case scenario: A really bad nuclear accident. Something that wipes out an entire country or a few States. Why? Because that is the only thing that will get the A holes in charge to wake up and see the monster they have created and put a stop to it while we still can!

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  13. Richard AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ MrPete:
    I’m sorry. Rubbish. US regulations require 7 days worth of diesel. After that the water stops and boil off will occur and core exposure within a few hours. Once that happens core meltdown and containment breach. If people really new how dangerous this stuff was. OMG!

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  14. Dr Strangelove AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Such optimism. I work at a reactor. Feel free to google safety manuals. There is NO backup plan for unmanned reactors. All backup plans assume the reactors will be manned and within a few hours of running on emergency backup generators things can be brought under control. So if any catastrophic event struck the globe or even say the US or China or France or Russia it is essentially game over. An extinction level event. Reactors automatically scram if any temperature of pressure fluctuation is detected. The insertion of control rods stops the reaction, but and it’s a huge BUT, reactors take months if not years to cool down. After the back up diesel runs out out (24hrs to 3 days) the core becomes exposed and meltdown commences. Breach of containment follows and a massive release of radiation. That’s the good news. HLW cooling ponds contain spent fuel rods. They in cooling pools because they are still very hot undergoing what’s called decay heat. There is 225,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel currently in cooling pools. They have no containment facilities and when the backup cooling systems fail, meltdown. In effect we are extinct already. Just waiting for some catastrophe to strike. EMP, pandemic, Super volcano, economic collapse. So you see there can never be a full scale nuclear war. Even if the opposing side did not retaliate eg. Russia you would still be committing suicide as all their reactors and cooling pools would go into melt down. There are 99 reactors in the US. 58 in France. 451 in total. That excludes the cooling pools. Getting the picture….

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  15. Dr Strangelove AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Rob Mullen:
    They don’t have fail safes if unmanned. Look it up.

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  16. Dr Strangelove AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ ben vidgen:
    I wasn’t aware Uranium was safer?

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