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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7 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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