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I'm about to flood the planet with magic, which doesn't play nice with tech, especially power. The only places tech will still work are Null Zones which cancel magic due to deposits of minerals (the specific minerals are still undecided).

When this flood of magic hits, power fails instantly, with no chance for the "proper" shutdown of nuclear reactors. How can I determine the exclusion zones this would create and the death toll from radiation poisoning?

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  • $\begingroup$ Is your initial assumption that all power is nuclear, or that 450 nuc plants are in parallel with other power sources (natural gas, coal, et al). $\endgroup$ Feb 26, 2020 at 3:00
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733 looks like an answer ;-) $\endgroup$ Feb 26, 2020 at 3:18
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    $\begingroup$ Since the sizes of the Chernoyl Exclusion Zone and the Land Area of Earth are both easily available from Google, the worse-than-worst-case scenario seems a fairly elementary math problem (Hint: It's much less than 1%) $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Feb 26, 2020 at 3:23
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733 Chernobyl surprisingly enough wasn't actually the worst case scenario. It was terrible and could have been even worse. Imagine if the divers hadn't managed to drain the pool beneath the reactor and another, much larger steam explosion had happened. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Feb 26, 2020 at 4:15
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733 - there were no divers while Chernobyl incident. One shouldn't belive in fiction. My close relative were there (and born 2 healthy children few years later) - it was both more and less drama than on TV. $\endgroup$
    – ksbes
    Feb 26, 2020 at 9:41

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The Fukushima incident is a good model for what happens when a nuclear power station loses power. At Fukushima the reactors safely shut down following the Tohoku earthquake, but this only means that the primary uranium reactions stopped. The nuclear fuel continues to generate heat due byproducts undergoing radioactive decay. This decay heat is significant, so power must be maintained to coolant pumps even after a reactor shuts down. If that power is not maintained then the shut down reactors can/will still get hot enough to melt.

All existing commercial reactors need active cooling after being shut down. If electricity stopped functioning then the coolant pumps would stop working, as well as their backups (which are diesel generators and batteries) and the reactor would quickly get dangerously hot.

The loss of electricity does not necessarily imply that the radioactive decay would also stop, as radioactive decay is a function of the weak nuclear force, while electricity is a function of the electromagnetic force.

As the reactor gets hotter the coolant (typically water) would boil off as steam, increasing the pressure inside the reactor. This pressure would be relieved through emergency pressure release valves, but without active coolant flow the nuclear fuel would soon become uncovered and uncooled. High temperature reactions in the reactor (with the zircalloy fuel cladding) would release hydrogen gas, which would also build up inside the reactor and would be released through the pressure release valve. This hydrogen gas could explode, as it did at Fukushima.

Ultimately, one of three things will happen. Probably the best-case scenario is that the reactor will get so hot that it completely melts and falls into whatever happens to be under the reactor (hopefully a large concrete catchment basin designed to do exactly that). This nuclear slag will stay very hot and very radioactive for a long time, but otherwise it's not doing much. As long as you don't go spelunking inside former nuclear power plants you're going to be pretty safe.

The middle-case scenario is that the plant develops radioactive leaks. Radioactive particles will get into the groundwater and into the environment, but massive radioactive contamination is avoided. People who are unlucky enough to live downstream or downwind will have an elevated lifetime risk of cancer, but radiation-induced cancers have a latent period of about 30 years, and the actual incidence of cancer from long term low-level radiation exposure is generally very low. (About 40% of the healthy population in the world today will end up developing cancer, and about 20% will end up dying from their cancer. The natural prevalence of cancer is very high among the healthy population, so low-level radiation leaks will change that picture to affect more people and younger people, but the underlying reality won't actually change.)

The worst-case scenario is massive contamination such as what happened at Chernobyl. A steam explosion or similar mechanism rips the reactor apart and spreads radioactive fuel over the nearby countryside. However, your mental image of Chernobyl is probably a lot worse than it really was. Even without cleanup, the majority of the radioactive contamination would have been limited to the area immediately around the nuclear plant (less than a half a kilometer). People who venture up to the reactor complex itself could easily get lethal doses that would kill them in days or weeks, but if you never go up to the reactor site then you could just treat everyone else like they're exposed to low-level contamination like in the middle-case scenario.

Now, most western-style reactors are built inside a building called a containment building. This is designed to prevent any major radioactive release even in the event of a total core meltdown. As far as we know this mechanism will largely work, and even if containment is breached, it is likely that those breaches will be leaks instead of catastrophic damage and massive radioactive contamination. However, not all nuclear reactors (notably those built in Russia and the former Soviet satellite states by the USSR) have this containment. The Chernobyl reactor did not have containment- the reactor building was essentially a large metal shed you'd find housing any other piece of industrial equipment. When the Chernobyl reactor had a steam explosion it ripped straight through the building. What this means is that western-style reactors are probably immune to the worst-case scenario given above without additional plot intervention.

As far as how big those exclusion zones would be- Fukushima eventually had a 30km exclusion zone, but that is a very generous exclusion zone designed so that people would be exposed to absolutely zero additional radiation. Aside from a few hotspots outside the reactor complex there was no significant threat of acute radiation syndrome that would cause radiation poisoning or death (the dose rates mostly recorded were in the range of 10-50 uSv per hour- well below the threshold even for long term cancer risk).

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    $\begingroup$ Very thorough answer. A small hint, though: With Chernobyl, the weather helped in mitigating things. it was raining when things went haywire, which helped because a substantial part of the radioactive particles were bound and not blown as far as they would on a day without rain. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Feb 26, 2020 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki, it's hard to say if it better or worth. If not for the rain - all this particles were not so concentrated in one area and contamination would not be that heavy. It's a an open question what is better - to have one highly dangerous area for hundreds years or just slightly rise world-wide radiation? $\endgroup$
    – ksbes
    Feb 26, 2020 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ You are right there. I was meaning to say that this reduced spread. But as you said, it did increase the concentration in the closer surroundings $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Feb 26, 2020 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ All existing commercial reactors need active cooling after being shut down. This is not strictly true. CANDU reactors eventually need replenishment of their cooling water (on the order of weeks), but are designed to continue cooling even in the event of total electrical blackout. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Feb 15 at 19:07
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None at all today

There are no graphite-moderated reactors like Chernobyl operating today, we use Light Water Reactors, or occasionally, Heavy Water Reactors CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium). Because of this, unless your magic turns water into graphite, there will be no reactor core melt-downs.

If you immediately kill power to any nuclear reactor, the poison control rods, which are held up by electromagnets, will immediately drop into the core and absorb nearly all neutron radiation. The process is called "Scramming" the reactor. Control rods are called "poison" because they kill nuclear reactions. They are made of halfnium, which absorbs neutrons; reactions shut down instantly. Because of this, there will be no residual radiation from reactor cores. [Caveat: Control rods do rarely get stuck and fail to fall. The water in that one section of the core could increase reactivity to a critical point in commercial reactors (but not military ones). The normal procedure here is to drain the water out of the core, but you have to do this manually since you killed electricity. So there is a possible scenario where a small part of one reactor “melts down”, creating a groundwater issue. The plant has tanks that will hold the contaminated coolant if they drain it in time.]

No radiation leaked from the core at Fukushima, the contamination came from cooling water that came out of it when the earthquake and tsunami broke coolant pipes. Water with radioactive elements in it were dumped into the Pacific Ocean.

Unless your magic can break coolant pipes, you won't have any Fukushima-like damage.

Instantly shutting down all electricity on the planet will not cause any radiation leakage today, however, slowly, since we will not be able to pump or process radioactive water, we will have an impossible cleanup and containment problem. They may fence off all reactors and abandon them, letting their pipes rust and leak. It would become a small local exclusion zone in a few decades.

How to create a disaster

If your plot needs a nuclear disaster, you could magically freeze all water at power plants. The ice will destroy all the pipes and also prevent the control rods from falling. The ice will still moderate the reaction, and the reactor could go into a prompt critical state. As the ice melts, it would start at the bottom. Cold water is the absolute worst thing for reactors, because it is more dense and increases reactivity quickly. This would cause both a meltdown, break the containment vessel, and leak all of the coolant water into the rivers or lakes that cool them. Nasty day!

I am a naval nuclear propulsion operator. I maintain reactors for the US Navy. They can't blow up.

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