To be more specific, I mean what if every wire, every power cable and transformer on the connected grids to the nuclear power plants all ruptured at once. The transformers literally exploding, the wires and cables tearing open; while the plants themselves became unstable due to sudden extreme power fluctuations.

I want to know what the effects of this widespread damage would be in North America and estimates on how long this disaster's effects would last for.

Thus far a lot of good answers and suggestions have come in. However I am not simply asking about the power plant woes. (Although that feedback was very useful) I am also asking what would happen IF the wires and cables tore,the transformers blew up,etc. Not just immediately connected to the plant. But anywhere that receives power from the plant,in one big burst;all suddenly is rent asunder by a violent surge within the power system.

I apologize for this question not being on point to begin with. It was just harder to frame for me. I am asking what do you do,when all of the copper and conductors in the wires,plant and transformers are torn apart by crystalline protrusions?

  • $\begingroup$ At once would mean no feedback, which would be the same as the main transmission cable snapping. The failsafes would kick in and the plant would safely shut down. Now, if you have feedback... it depends on the designer's imagination $\endgroup$
    – nzaman
    Jan 19, 2019 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ Is the nuclear plant able to run their emergency diesel generators for core cooldown? $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2019 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ Why does a question that seems deeply in the realm of fantasy have a 'science-based' tag? $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jan 19, 2019 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ So is the point not only to render all nuclear power plants unusable but also to destroy all power grids that have even a small percentage of their power come from nuclear power plants? Because the easy answer is that power companies would use other sources and there would be a few outages here and there. But if you destroy most of the power grids, that's a different story. $\endgroup$
    – Cyn
    Jan 20, 2019 at 1:16
  • $\begingroup$ you're describing wholesale destruction of the electricity distruibution newtork. many people will die. $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Jan 20, 2019 at 7:45

4 Answers 4


The first thing that will happen is a domino effect as follows. You see a reasonably accurate telling of that in the first reactor scene in The China Syndrome, though in the movie the drama came from over-reliance on one indicator despite it being an outlier: a dumb mistake. Anyway,

  • Generator trip. The main generator disconnects from the grid.
  • Turbine trip. The turbine, with no load on it, would violently accelerate to destruction speeds, so steam is immediately shut off. This happens before any spike/surge damage could prevent it.
  • Slamming the steam valves shut causes the flow of steam to immediately back up, spiking pressure and popping a pressure relief valve that dumps excess steam into a cooling pool. All this is contained routinely. This relief valve does not require power and will auto-shut when no longer needed. *
  • most power reactors dump essentially all their output into the generator, so there's no other loads to sluff off extra steam onto. That means with the generator gone, they need to stop making steam ASAP or it will just keep popping the relief valve. So the reactor will either SCRAM, or do an equivalent sequence that has less paperwork and/or is more recoverable.
  • The reactor has stopped fission. However about 20% of a reactor's heat comes from continued breakdown (decay) of the atoms that have already split. This continues, but rapidly tapers off to about 1% in an hour or so, and keeps tapering. This "decay heat" needs to be dealt with for months to come, but particularly in the first few days.
  • Feedwater pumps, cooling water circulators, lighting in plant offices, battery charging etc. continue to run, to deal with this decay heat. They are run off external grid power. The station is now a drag on the power grid.

Now, a second thing happens: "station blackout". External grid power is lost. Emergency diesel generators spin up to power the normal post-SCRAM reactor cooling, essential station facilities, battery top-up, etc. They train for this. It's presumed that station blackout always happens alongside generator trip, since the grid is down. AFIAK it is impossible for a nuclear plant complex to use one reactor to power the rest of the isolated complex, but in a long term crisis, if you had a stable, well managed complex, engineers might find a way to do it.

Here is where you make a narrative fork in the road. Either your crisis affects the emergency diesel generators, or it does not.

If it does not, then the event is a big nothingburger as far as plant safety.

If the diesel generators are taken out, but they are able go over to the local CAT dealer or Sunrise Rentals and say "we need your biggest 4 generators, Right Now, by the way we are from the nuclear plant", and get them hooked in within 24 hours, again, nothingburger.

If they are not able to do that, then it becomes a chess game of skill and resources, against the clock. The needs will vary by peculiarities of that unit. For instance, Fukushima I units 1-4 are the same model of reactor. But all you needed was a fire truck to stabilize unit 1 indefinitely, because it had isolation condensers, as close to an "I win" button as you get in nuclear power**. However units 2 and 3 would be harder.

Restarting the power grid

Normally, restarting a power grid is am major pain because of all the load out there waiting to draw down any power you provide.

Only a few power plants can "black start", i.e. Start generating from a station-blackout condition. Nuclear power plants are defintely not on that list. Nor are big coal/gas thermal plants. All these types of thermal plants need to parasite tens of megawatts of power from the grid, to pump cooling (ultimate heat sink) water, boiler feedwater, fuel and combustion air.

Geothermal, same thing.

Windmills and solar don't have any parasitic draw to speak of from the grid. However they cannot blackstart for a different reason: by design, they need to "sync in" to the existing grid, and this is local to each windmill or solar panel inverter. Solar has no rotating mass, so solar is very stupid about staying in sync. Its inverters are designed to "follow the grid", a design philisophy which precludes any blackstart. Of course, that is software inside the inverter; a software update could tell an inverter "you are the one".

The "go-to" plants for blackstarting a grid are hydro. Their main generators also need to parasite external power for excitationof their main generators. However, better hydro plants are fitted with a small "donkey generator" which uses permanent magnets for excitation. This can deliver enough power to excite one of the main generators, allowing the hydro plant to "bootstrap". With its main generators turning, it can provide the station load necessary to start the thermal and nuke plants. The hydro plant can also, humiliatingly, use a diesel generator for this boostrapping, and even simply rent one down at the CAT dealer.

Blackstart capability could also be added to a thermal plant with a big enough generator and a smallish unit that can start off the generator and provide service power to the big units. Having blackstart ability adds a cost to the plant, so power grids contract with plants (pay them) to have the ability.

Rebuilding a power grid

Rebuilding a grid solves the problem of all the loads wanting to jump on at once. There are no loads, so you get to carefully manage who is reconnected.

Now you are talking about destruction of the power grid's wires and substations at a staggering scale. They have spares lying around, the narrative question is whether they are destroyed too. A transformer on a pallet would not be destroyed by EMP. They would have trouble manufacturing more on a large scale powering the plants with rental generators. So I suspect the power grid would get rebuilt chunks at a time, linking blackstart capable plants to other needed plants to manufacturing facilities able to make more wire and transformers.

Power grid wire is made of aluminum (the best conductor on earth that doesn't violently corrode near water, when you measure by weight, which is what the transmission towers need to hold up). Aluminum is everywhere, but takes a staggering amount of electricity to extract. Fortunately aluminum plants tend to be located near large hydro.

A narrative pivot point in your story is how the wires blew up; are they intact enough to use as "rope" to pull replacement wire (and if so, can they conduct electricity, since aluminum transmission line is uninsulated pure metal, a steel wire core with 1350 aluminum strands all around it). It's plausible for the aluminum to oxidize or burn; oxidation would leave the steel intact, which could conduct some electricity, an aluminum fire would melt the steel for sure.

* Unless it happens to be at Three Mile Island in 1978, and the indicator light is wired to show the actuator's position, not the valve's position.

** Which is why they gave so little attention to it, focusing on saving 2-3. Little did they know they had accidentally turned the isolation condenser off.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Also, I suspect many nuclear plants are rail-served or nearly so due to construction logistics requirements -- if there's a rail spur to the plant, the serving RR can deliver a few gensets (aka locos) from the nearest yard within a few hours of getting dialed up -- with the appropriate adapter cable, it wouldn't surprise me if the whole plant's emergency power system could be run off of a SD40-2 or the likes. $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Jan 19, 2019 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Shalvenay yup... Amtrak and commuter locomotives generate 480V 3-phase delta directly, which is pretty standard for plant power. Comes out paralleled in four 4/0 cables, so it could power 4 loads or one big one, any local electrical supply will have 4/0 wire and the kit to work with it. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2019 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Disaster does not happen, that's what I said. Did you read my entire answer? Anyway I cited China Syndrome only because the Internet isn't exactly thick with control room view tapes of reactors being shut down. In fairness it was a product of its time: RFK, Watergate, Vietnam and Silkwood were bitter in recent memory. Cheating contractors using goons and murder to cover their tracks was believable. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2019 at 20:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer the question. While it discusses quite well what happens to the nuclear reactors, it fails to note that the question asks about the consequences of the destruction of the power grids themselves. As in "every wire, every power cable and transformer on the connected grids to the nuclear power plants all ruptured at once. The transformers literally exploding, the wires and cables tearing open". It's nice to know the reactors will safely shutdown. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jan 20, 2019 at 4:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Good guess on the actual numbers @Karl. Given a 1500' train and 5% allowable voltage drop, my calc says you'll get 125A out of 4/0 wires. Amtrak cars parallel 4 of them... so 500A, that x 480V x sqrt(3) = 415kW. That's conservative, actually the load is distributed along the train. The dining car is by far the hungriest load, at I don't recall, about 100kw alone. So numbers work about perfect. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2019 at 16:50

The premise of the question is erroneous.

The plants would not become unstable. It doesn't matter that the power plants use atomic power; ordinary coal, oil or gas-burning thermoelectric power plants are in the same situation. Power plants have built-in safety measures so that they can shut down in an orderly fashion in the event of being disconnected from the grid.

In the end, atomic power plants are thermoelectric power plants; they boil water to make steam to turn the turbines to turn the generators. Water has a large thermal inertia, so there is time to cut off the generators, vent the steam and switch to cooling towers.

There will be widespread distress at the loss of electric power, but no disaster. Sorry.

Restarting the atomic power plants would take quite a long time, days or even weeks. Atomic power plants do not like being turned off.

  • $\begingroup$ One or two days, until the Xe-135 has decayed sufficiently. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iodine_pit Three if you're really paranoid (as you should, if you're in charge of a nuclear reactor). $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Jan 19, 2019 at 21:53

Thermal power plant are designed to operate at fixed point, meaning that any deviation from their designed working condition is extremely anti-economic. This holds true for thermal plants burning oil, coal and even nuclear fuel.

Therefore they are normally designated to provide the baseline of the energy production, covering more or less the "fixed" component of the energy demand, while more dynamic sources (i.e. hydroelectric, wind) are used to chase the peaks of demand.

When something causes a sudden collapse of the energy demand, there are safety mechanism in place to stop the plants and disconnect them from the grid.

Something similar to what you described happened in Italy in 2003: a tree felt on the wires in Switzerland, with the ensuing domino effect causing a blackout to the entire Italian power grid.

The damage resulting from such an event would be large (traffic accidents due to the sudden going off of the traffic light, people trapped in the elevators, etc.), but nowhere as dramatic as a core meltdown.

Normally recovering from such a black out takes at most a few days (in the Italian case I mentioned before it was solved within the day).

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It's not true that operating thermal power plants off their optimum is extremely un-economic. It's a gradual curve (and different for pretty much every plant). It's one of the factors that go into electric power dispatch: you try to run all the plants as economically as possible while supplying ever-changing loads, making sure you don't overload any transmission line, keeping frequencies matched so the grid stays stable... $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 19, 2019 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf +1 Also building an oversized plant is extremely uneconomic, but once it's built, than money is gone, for good. Don't throw good money after bad, by trying to run your plant at the planned "optimal" capacity. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Jan 19, 2019 at 22:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Karl: Well, that gets into more complexities :-) If it's a fossil fuel plant, you have fuel costs to consider, hydro has stream flow constraints, nuclear you basically want running at full power... It's not a simple problem. It sometimes amazes me that the grid works at all - and I used to write software to manage parts of it :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 20, 2019 at 19:10

As far as the nuclear plants themselves, as others have pointed out, nothing much. However much scare stories may contribute to the profits of Hollywood disaster film makers, in real life* they just don't work like that. They would simply shut down.

What would happen is an almost-immediate blackout of the rest of the grid. The nuclear plants are presumably supplying a large share of the power being consumed by the grid's customers. Remove this power and you get brownouts (like stalling your car), breakers trip, the grid fragments (electrically) into multiple pieces, and you have a grid-wide blackout. Without the power the nuclear plants produce, there's probably no way to bring the entire grid back up.

It's instructive to read reports of major power blackouts, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_1965 https://www.electricchoice.com/blog/worst-power-outages-in-united-states-history/ All of these were triggered by far more trivial things than disconnection of all nuclear plants. I also think most if not all of them had nuclear plants on their grids, which obviously didn't explode or melt down to China :-)

*Even if, like the USSR, you're stupid enough to build the plants without elementary safety precautions, you still have to deliberately abuse the reactor to get it to catastrophically fail.

  • $\begingroup$ "What, tsunamis? In Japan? Never." (i'm leaving out the stupid grin here, because it's not really funny. :-| ) $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Jan 19, 2019 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Karl Nuclear power plants in Japan were built to factor in tsunamis. What they didn't factor in was a once in a thousand years tsunami. There's nothing funny about that. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jan 20, 2019 at 4:10
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android This was an extremely strong (9) earthquake, but the tsunami wasn't that exceptional.Smaller earthquake at a bit different location would have done the same. And they knew. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Jan 20, 2019 at 6:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Karl The tsunami exceeded the height of their tsunami barriers. I saw a report that indicated the tsunami surpassed their statistical expectations. That's why it was once in a thousand years event. Different configurations in terms of strength & location can produce unpleasant results. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jan 20, 2019 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android The barriers were insufficient, and the location of the generators was inappropriate, the block 1 generators didn't even have doors, but standing in the open, and this had been brought to their attention numerous times numerous times before, and they chose to ignore it. Playing ostrich, just like when they waited for days, till after the explosions had taken place, to ask the outside world for help, generators and pumps. $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Jan 20, 2019 at 16:27

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