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Setup: The year is 2018. Malicious virus escaped secret lab and managed to kill 99% of all humans between January and April 2016. Not-so-average Joe spent his last two years of basic survival with the rest of people who are immune to the virus.

Joe managed to gather about 500 survivors and they live off the ground in a small village. Although situation is still rough, the group managed to get the basics going: They have running water, good shelter, protection from winter and enough food to keep them healthy.

Now the idea arises in Joe's head: About 20 miles away, there is abandoned nuclear power plant. And because it did not explode in last two years, Joe assumes the internal security systems of such nuclear power plant managed to shut off the core automatically.

Because there is no electricity in the grid, Joe also assumes, that getting into the plant is just matter of time (And he has all the time on Earth)

The group consensus is: Better die because we screwed something in the plant than to die simply because we will die anyway. And having some electricity in the grid would be huge bonus for Joe.

Can Joe start up the nuclear power plant?

Some background:

  • Joe can use computers and understand basics of most common operating systems (Windows - Linux - Mac OS, where he knows only real basics of Mac OS)
  • The plant really managed to shut the core off
  • But the plant is also powered by solar panels, so some internal security systems may be working
  • The virus in question managed to kill 99% of people in three months and the country where Joe lives was infected first. (so everyone killed within a month)
  • Joe knows only the basics how power plants work. Nothing else.
  • The power plant in question is "Made in USA". Although not really in function anywhere, just assume the power plant is Westinghouse AP1000 model
  • Joe is not stupid, so the village in question is positioned in a way that if something wrong happens in the plant, the village itself stays intact
  • And as stated in the question: There is no electricity and no internet. If Joe should study something, it should be printed out and accessible in local library.
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    $\begingroup$ Guys, this comment section is getting too chatty. I created chat room for this question. Feel free to contact me there $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Nov 4 '15 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ Better might be 2036 and a fusion power plant, from one of the many recent start-up companies racing to get commercial ones going now. (Or perhaps the story assumes that one of them somehow is successful this year.) $\endgroup$ – user2338816 Nov 6 '15 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ From the situation you describe it's more likely that the Deadman's Red Button already wasn't pushed in time in one of the countries. So you should involve this issue in your background since the nuclear power plants are good targets, I suggest. $\endgroup$ – abyss.7 Nov 8 '15 at 7:02
  • $\begingroup$ After your pocalpse, I would first hunt down a Prius, a tank of petrol, and a small car inverter to bootstrap the electricity problem. The next step would be steal some museum piece tank engine (ala Thomas). $\endgroup$ – Aron Nov 9 '15 at 5:57
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    $\begingroup$ Your first reference here should be Lucifer's Hammer by larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It deals extensively with the efforts of a reactor crew to keep their reactor running in the face of a civilization-destroying catastrophe. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Nov 9 '15 at 17:30

12 Answers 12

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Not the answer to the black start (that has been already answered), but given the

But the plant is also powered by solar panels, so some internal security systems may be working

premise, Joe the Average would do much better if he decided to rip away the solar panels (and attached batteries) and install them in the village. A community of 500 does not need much electrical power (it's not like each family must have a freezer and a washing machine).

Jury rigging solar panels is much easier than restarting a nuclear plant (and keep a piece of the grid operating!). If you have half an electrician with a multi-meter among the survivors, you are done.

You can even go scavenging for solar panels in the vicinity. But yes, the best long term solution (in 20 years, much of the solar panels will degrade into uselessness) is hydro power. Maybe wind generators, but those are much less reliable.

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    $\begingroup$ Aww, snap! You are totally right. It makes more sense than trying to boot the whole nuclear power plant $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Nov 1 '15 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ @PavelJanicek But it's a lot of fun to experience someone missing an obvious solution. You could always end your story with Joe disintegrating into an irradiated dust cloud, meanwhile "the solar panels that could have powered his settlement for several generations remained unharmed". $\endgroup$ – Reaces Nov 2 '15 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ @PavelJanicek Big Off Topic: or why not reverse whole idea - going to salvage solar panels, found still running core which is blackouting power grid and going to metldown... :) $\endgroup$ – Jan 'splite' K. Nov 3 '15 at 7:47
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    $\begingroup$ A little insight to this already very insightful answer - the models of panels used at industrial facilities wouldn't have built-in inverters, for efficiency reasons a string of panels would feed an external inverter with max power point tracker. And the panels themselves will survive much longer if you keep them clean - a blacked out junction can overheat when the rest of the panel is lit. Top end industrial panels don't suffer as badly from that. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Nov 3 '15 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ This may not work as well if the country in question doesn't get a lot of sunshine. Admitedly it would have been stupid to have the solar panels in the first place if they didn't work well with the country's climate, but stupider things have happened in favour of green energy. $\endgroup$ – Pharap Nov 4 '15 at 6:21
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I spent 6 years working as an engineer at a Nuclear Power Plant. It would be impossible for myself to start up a plant, even assuming it was shut down cleanly, the spent fuel pool was somehow not a pile of radioactive slag, and all the consumables for maintaining the site were available. We had a staff of hundreds to handle all the day to day maintenance issues such as oil for motors, grease for bearings, and all sorts of things I can't remember.

However, assuming that Joe was able to solve all the issues listed above (Finding enough power to kick-start the power plant, finding something to consume all the power, etc.) and actually got the plant generating electricity, he (and his 500 co-survivors) would be unable to keep the plant running for very long. Some critical piece of equipment would eventually fail and require repairs which would require some specialty manufactured piece of equipment that would be unavailable.

Joe's best choice would be finding some power source that is designed for long-term unattended use such as solar panels and batteries/inverter. However, Joe should be able to find a wonderful collection of tools and equipment at the Nuclear plant that would be quite useful (including electric powered vehicles that he could charge from the solar plant) for things not related to the power plant itself.

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    $\begingroup$ Great first answer! Welcome to WorldBuilding! $\endgroup$ – Dronz Nov 2 '15 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Dronz Yes, it's not often that a user to post his first answer on any SE site gets 40 upvotes on it. $\endgroup$ – ghosts_in_the_code Nov 3 '15 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ @ghosts_in_the_code Yup. (It was nice when it had zero, too. ;-) ) $\endgroup$ – Dronz Nov 3 '15 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent point. I was thinking along the lines of "could he find operating manuals that would explain how to run the plant and understand them". But even if he could, yes, a commercial power plant is a huge and complex thing. Even if they had a warehouse of supplies and spare parts, just keeping up with it would be a huge job. $\endgroup$ – Jay Nov 3 '15 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Jay, the plant on my submarine was well documented, had a fair complement of parts and a long life. We discussed theoretically how many of us it would take to make it go, and it came out to two, three if we wanted to sleep ever again. But that is a tiny plant that we grew to know intimately over years, AFTER we spent about 2 years getting qualified to do it. I could probably start it the wrong way, by myself, today, almost ten years later, but I have no idea how to run the water distillation units. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Nov 3 '15 at 23:09
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Not so likely

Besides Joe not knowing the first thing about electricity let alone nuclear power the main issue here is to black start a high power plant without significant available electricity to start with.

So, as Wikipedia tells us, "a black start is the process of restoring an electric power station or a part of an electric grid to operation without relying on the external transmission network." We can safely assume that the grid is down given the apocalypse and such. The AP1000 is listed with approx. 1.1 GW of electrical power. Wikipedia again suggest "require station service power of up to 10% of their capacity for boiler feedwater pumps, boiler forced-draft combustion air blowers, and for fuel preparation." (okay, not all of those apply to a nuclear power plant). Reduce this a little due to the AP1000's advanced design with "35% fewer pumps" still leaves you with about 50 MW necessary for start-up. With no off-site power supply to speak with. 50 MW of solar power, as mentioned in the question, is really, really huge. You need to be quite lucky to find something like that nearby and it's also unlikely that the plant would have such a large standby capacity (e.g. diesels) on site.

Best shot to make it work (again besides having Joe learn quite a bit about electricity and which buttons to press at a the nuclear power plants control room) would be to start up a hydroelectric power station. Giving that a second thought - finding and operating one of those should give 500 people plenty of electricity to be fine with.

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    $\begingroup$ The nuclear power plant can also be scavenged for pretty much all technology required for a hydro plant - it will have turbines, generators, transformers, etc. Furthermore, you can't just run a nuclear power plant at 0.1% capacity, it just doesn't work that way. Figuring out a way to consume/dump a few megawatts of electricity 24/7 in a safe and sustainable way is not trivial. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Nov 1 '15 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ Ripping apart a full sized power plant or construct the dam for a multi MW hydroelectrics seems to be out of reach for 500-ish people imho (so is operating this nuclear powerplant as you say @Peteris) $\endgroup$ – Ghanima Nov 1 '15 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ It would be quite possible to remove one of auxiliary generators (AP1000 has two 80kW and two 4MW diesel generators), and link them to a construction from some auxiliary turbines and large diameter piping running on whatever hydro source you have available. The point is, if you're ready to cannibalize electric equipment, this plant would be a rich source also for any sub-MW gear you would require. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Nov 1 '15 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Peteris Power station turbines weigh hundreds of tonnes. They recently closed a motorway near where I live for two days so they could move a turbine out of a decommissioned power plant for scrapping. There's absolutely no way that 500 people can scavenge a turbine. And a steam turbine probably isn't remotely useful for hydro power, anyway. And, wait, where's that hydro plant coming from without a dam? They're gonna build that, too? $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Nov 1 '15 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby large hydro power stations require turbines that weigh hundreds of tonnes and require major construction, however, building a dam on a minor river large enough for a 50kw generator (~1 cubicmeter/sec flow) is perfectly feasible for a dozen people, much less 500; heck, beavers occasionally manage to make such dams if people let them. If there are any steam turbine blades available that are roughly the right size for that flow then that will be better than anything your local apprentice blacksmith will make. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Nov 1 '15 at 21:47
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In addition to the other very valid concerns raised in other answers, the other massive problem here is what to do with all of that 1.21GW of power. Assuming you don't have a DeLorean sitting around that can sponge up the leftovers, and also assuming that the electrical grid is trashed because of, you know, the apocalypse and all, then there is the much broader problem of load balancing the electrical grid.

This is a huge subject, beyond the scope of this answer, but the magic of the electrical grid requires more than just a working power plant. A nuclear power plant can't just be turned on and running without a sufficient load to power - the energy it produces has to go somewhere. With only 500 people you will be producing WAY too much power - much, much more than can be consumed by your post-apocalyptic population.

Before even thinking about starting up the power plant you will need to figure out what you are going to do with the leftover power. Assuming the plant will be running for the next decade or so, you will need a long-term solution for dumping all of the excess electricity somewhere sustainably - particularly in a way that is adaptive to the load being drawn by the population. Normal plants do not have this sort of infrastructure. Nuclear is a base-load technology so the balancing on the grid is taken up by smaller generators like gas turbines, etc, which power up and down to match consumption on the grid (ie: we never usually have to DUMP power, we always have to supplement).

Alternatively, if the grid is actually still intact then you might have the opposite problem - one single plant may still be connected to an entire continental electrical grid and trying to turn it on will result in the one single plant trying to push power through to every single electrical appliance across the entire grid that is still connected and turned on. A load mismatch of this sort would generally result in your plant's generators overheating and possibly burning out or melting.

In either case, Joe would need to figure out how much of the grid was still intact, take appropriate measures to isolate a portion of the grid that the plant intends to power (driving around and manually actuating substation disconnects, clipping cables, whatever), calculating the effective load on his newly created mini-grid, accounting for a means to precisely dispose of unused power... even for a single electrical engineer specialized in power systems this would be an enormous task. Average Joe doesn't have a hope in hell.

TLDR; Trying to turn the thing on is putting the cart before the horse. If average Joe thinks this is step-1 in the process then he absolutely will not succeed. There would be a lot of infrastructure work necessary to prepare before you could even think about the "turning it on" step.

Average Joe with a team of 500 average people would probably need at absolute minimum several years of planning, intense study, luck, and determination to even remotely have a chance of possibly pulling this (pre-planning and preparation step) off.

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    $\begingroup$ ...and trying to just run the reactor at a "low" setting isn't a good idea either. Fission reactors have a minimum "safe" operating level, and trying to work around that gives you all kinds of problems... ask the Chernobyl operators, who were so confused by the core's behaviour that they eventually blew it up -- and they were trained operators. $\endgroup$ – DevSolar Nov 9 '15 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ There is a slight conceptual error here, but only very slight. The generating station does, in fact, need to put out some small amount of power or else the turbines themselves could have trouble regulating speed. And load sharing would be a tremendous problem, except if this was actually going to work, they need to island the nuke plant (isolate a portion of the grid just for it) and black start. I never ran a commercial reactor so I don't know if the local loads on the station are sufficient to stabilize the turbines. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Nov 15 '15 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ But the "too much power" scenario only happens at high speed, when there is a big shift in where power is being delivered dynamically across the grid. The station by itself isn't going to make any more or less power than you ask it to by turning things on. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Nov 15 '15 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ @SeanBoddy The physical load on the turbines is proportional to the load being drawn by the grid. Without a sufficient electrical load attached to the plant the turbine will not have sufficient resistance to turning and will accelerate beyond its rated rotational speed. Removing the expected load from the generators would cause all types of protection systems to kick in, probably ending up with the plant in some sort of emergency shutdown mode. $\endgroup$ – J... Nov 16 '15 at 12:53
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    $\begingroup$ @SeanBoddy Reading back, I guess I could have been more clear. If anything, this just makes more strongly the point that Joe would have a hell of a task ahead of him. Maybe he could run the reactor at 0.05% power... hacking in smaller turbines, re-routing steam, adding load resistors in the cooling tower, reprogramming control algorithms to deal with xenon oscillations at such crazy low power levels...hopefully without radiating himself to death and breaking critical equipment for which spares are scarce. Hey, why not, eh? ;) $\endgroup$ – J... Nov 17 '15 at 1:28
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There is a fundamental mistake in the question. A nuclear powerplant CANNOT be without power for very long without a catastrophic incident.

The reactor vat itself will be shut down safely, but that's not the issue here. the REAL issue is the radioactive fuel handling pools. These are pools of water containing the depleted radioactive fuel that are remnants of the fuel rods. The radioactive waste will continue to generate heat and require cooling for years. This happens in pools that constantly need to be filled with water by pumps. without electricity or diesel generators to power these pumps, these pools will drain in days.

Once they are drained, the waste will rapidly heat up, ignite and burn the entire plant. It will be Chernobyl all over again. Large areas will be contaminated by particles that will take hundreds of thousands of years to decay.

The biggest problem is that this won't JUST happen in the nuclear power plant you're interested in. This happens in EVERY nuclear power plant in the entire world. and there are over 400 of those. Depending on where you are, your small settlement can be at serious risk.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91JZCbGLCvk is a video from a documentary on life after people that explains what happens.

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    $\begingroup$ The exclusion zone around Fukushima has very little hazard anymore. A lot more elderly died in the evacuation than if they had stayed put. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Nov 1 '15 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel it is nearly safe because of CLEANUP. Japan invested billions into cleaning up all the radioactive fallout from the area. If 99% of the population died before the nuclear incident, there will be no cleanup. Watch the video, because it shows the exact situation which the question asks about: a nuclear powerplant after Humanity is gone (or mostly gone). Or do you think those 500 people from the question will spend their time mitigating the disaster and cleaning up the remains, 400 times over? $\endgroup$ – Nzall Nov 1 '15 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ Other than the site itself there wasn't really anything to clean up and even at it's worst the radiation wasn't bad--the evacuation was more a panic reaction than based on the numbers. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Nov 2 '15 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel stop comparing the events I'm talking about to Fukushima or Chernobyl. Fukushima and Chernobyl both were mitigated disasters: the radioactive fallout from the event was reduced significantly because of human intervention during and after the event, both on the nuclear site itself and besides that. There won't be human intervention in this case. Again, this would be far wore than Fukushima OR Chernobyl. You're grasping at single lines from my comments to get your opinion in. Also, Fukushima was literally a meltdown: 3 of the reactors melted down and exploded. $\endgroup$ – Nzall Nov 2 '15 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ While I agree with this answer on general terms, I find the wording to be dubious. The spent rods will not "ignite and burn the entire plant", they will melt down, releasing copious amounts of radioactive material -- but there will be no fireblaze since the fuel pools are not build from flammable materials. Also, this is not just a matter of the fuel pools -- the reactor itself will need cooling after a SCRAM or suffer the same fate. And while Fukushima is a good, even a perfect example, Chernobyl isn't -- Chernobyl was a completely different affair, a criticality excursion. But overall, +1. $\endgroup$ – DevSolar Nov 2 '15 at 14:54
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Very unlikely.

First, how can Joe know that the nuclear power plant is OK just because it didn't explode? Engineers learned a lot from the Chernobyl disaster. Modern nuclear power plants are designed to safely contain the reactor core in case of an accident even without any human interaction (Fukushima Daiichi was unfortunately even older than the Chernobyl plant and had similar design issues). So even in case of a complete reactor meltdown, the facility might look perfectly fine from the outside. He might not notice until he breaks a door open and is greeted by several Sievert of deadly radiation.

But let's assume that the facility actually is safe.

I am not a nuclear technician, but I am quite sure that starting a nuclear power plant requires more than just pressing the "On" button. However, chances are good that Joe will find the manual in a cabinet in the control room and can use it to teach himself the procedure to start the reactor.

But the problem is that the reactor likely did not shut down properly. When the apocalypse happened, then the reactor likely shut down automatically because some safety system was triggered. That means the facility is now in a failure state. Trying to get the facility out of that state might require some manual intervention. Trying to do this without the advise of a trained technician will likely cause more damage than good and might ruin the power plant once and for all.

Even with a technician the facility will require offsite power to start up. Nuclear power plants also require offsite power to keep running. Loss of offsite power is a critical failure event which will cause an immediate shutdown. After the powerplant was started it might be possible to rig it to ignore a LOOP condition, but again, this will require a trained technician who knows what he is doing. And then it comes to maintenance of the plant. Sooner or later Joe will have to get some new fuel elements (if he is lucky, there might be some in stock) and replace the old ones. I am quite sure Joe will certainly not be willing to get anywhere near these, unless he is willing to sacrifice his life for the community. Actually, unused UOX elements are safer to handle than one would assume. They are toxic, but only lightly radioactive (but Joe might not be aware of that). The used ones, tough, not so much.

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    $\begingroup$ I have spoken with nuclear technicians; startup is pretty much the most complex thing they do (shutdown, on the other hand, can be done with a single button). $\endgroup$ – cpast Nov 1 '15 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ If it were actually possible to run the plant at an output required by 500 people in a post-apocalyptic world, the fuel would not be an issue - it's not like trying to feed a coal plant. Alas, the plant's output would have to be much bigger - using up more fuel, and requiring a way to dump all that extra power. That's far from trivial. As is maintaining the power grid at all - it's a bit more complex than just running two/three wires from the plant to your home. Joe would run into trouble long before doing anything "nuclear" - most people have no idea how power transmission works. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Nov 2 '15 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ "Modern nuclear plants are designed..." -- sorry but this is misleading. Your link points to things like gravity-dropped control rods and negative void coefficients, i.e. the reactor shutting down automatically and safely. Fukushima actually did shut down properly (Chernobyl didn't). Fukushima still blew simply because they couldn't restore power to the water pumps despite trying. Even a "passively safe" / "modern" reactor will face the same fate, not due to criticality excursion, but due to decay heat. (The rest of your answer is quite good though.) $\endgroup$ – DevSolar Nov 2 '15 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ To add to @cpast's comment, we now have worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/28916/29 right here. :) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 2 '15 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ There are no modern plants in operation, unless you can point me to a modern design that has been completed or even started. $\endgroup$ – jCisco Nov 2 '15 at 21:24
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This anecdote may be slightly off the original topic, but it illustrates how hard it is to get a power plant up and running from a "cold" plant (black plant in the examples above).

When I was in the US Navy on a destroyer, we were running BECCE drills (Basic Engineering Casualty Control Exercises), which were designed to simulate battle damage and train us how to respond to keep our ship either in the fight, or at least afloat.

The exercise we were training on was losing our after fire and engine rooms (holes), which meant we had to cross connect the forward fire & engine rooms to allow us to get steam back to the after engine room so it could turn the screw (propeller) and generate electricity.

The captain dropped a live grenade off of the starboard bridge wing to simulate a torpedo hit in the forward fire room. We were supposed to do simulated casualty control for flooding, except we never got the chance. The grenade went off directly beside the forward fire room's main fuel feed pump, knocking it offline, in moments we lost fires in the forward fire room (and the after fire room was already "cold" for the BECCE drill), so steam pressure dropped quickly. Since both engine rooms were cross connected to the forward fire room, we quickly expended all our steam, and both the drive gears and the ship's turbine generators all went off line, the whole ship went dark, which automatically caused the emergency diesels to start up, but it's minutes before they've settle down and can provide consistent electricity, and then only to emergency circuits (fire pumps, fuel feed pumps, forced air draft blowers, ventilators in the holes, etc.).

Once you lose steam in a fire room, you have literally minutes of sufficient heat to do a "hot start", otherwise you end up having to do a cold start. A true cold start takes 72 hours on this type of ship. Well, with no fuel pump (it was mechanically driven), and no electricity to run the auxiliary for several minutes, as well as the forced air draft, they quickly ran out of time. The emergency generators kicked in almost immediately (I know because my station was at the forward emergency generator, and it started automatically, scaring the crap out of us because that wasn't part of the drill, and we weren't expecting it). Imagine being inside a tight metal box with a giant diesel generator inside it...

We had an entire ship full of trained engineers, who knew our plants inside and out, and we took hours and hours to get the plant restarted. We knew what had happened, and what needed to be fixed, but still we were dead in the water for most of an afternoon and into the evening before we got steam back up so we could get underway. We even had other ships of the same class in close proximity so we could get parts or assistance if needed.

Imagine what Joe has to learn, figure out, configure, appropriate, fix, just to be able to think about starting the plant. Our plant was a fairly simple #2 diesel fired steam boilers, basically, if you have enough electricity to run the auxiliary fuel pump, forced draft blower, and ventilation, you can start it with a butane lighter and some knowhow.

I've gone through naval reactors training in the USN, it took us six months of intensive training to get to the point where we knew enough to actually be taught on a real reactor (another six months). It's quite unlikely that Joe's ever going to get his plant running.

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  • $\begingroup$ How much longer was he a captain? $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Apr 6 '17 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ Actually I'm not aware of any repercussions for that Captain. He was one of the top two skippers I served with. He made a mistake, and turned it into a great training scenario. $\endgroup$ – delliottg Apr 6 '17 at 20:16
  • $\begingroup$ That's the other way I figured it could go. Great impromptu training! I know things don't generally go well if its bad enough for the ship to need to be towed, but that didn't happen in this case. $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Apr 6 '17 at 20:19
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I concur that the answer is a massive no chance, but that the plant (or really any heavy industrial plant) would be a gold mine in all sorts of other ways (Assuming you can avoid a radioactive liquid metal fire).

Consider, these things are built on rivers often as not, to provide the cooling water for the condensers, and they are full of all sorts of pumps and valves (Also, tools, cranes, all sorts of stuff).

For 500 people, forget the nuclear bit (absent keeping the cooling ponds from drying out, river water would not be ideal, but needs must, dig a trench), a centrifugal pump looks a lot like a hydroelectric turbine if you squint just right, and you probably have a river.

Start small, find a modest low pressure centrifugal pump of a few KW or so rating (The admin buildings heating system might be a good place to look), build a weir to get yourself some head, run the pump backwards as a turbine and flash one of the motor phases with a car battery to produce some residual magnetism in the rotor. Capacitors to provide the reactive power for the magnetising current should be an easy scrounge.

If you want to scale up (a lot) the condenser feedwater pumps are MW class machines and VERY hydroelectric turbine like, but that will be years down the line (So close the sluices and drain them to preserve the things for when you do need them).

You want to be thinking simplest way to skin the cat, the objective is power for 500 people, not a working nuclear reactor.

Ok, so "average Joe" here is a mechanic who read a bit around electrical machines and maybe holds a ham license, but the point is to use the peripheral parts to build technology to solve the problem you have not the one you would like to have.

Regards, Dan.

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If the nuclear part is really important to your story and these are some really reckless survivors you may be able to have them combine hot radioactive waste with thermoelectric couplers to make electricity from heat.

Basically this is what you could have them make https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_generator

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice MacG-ing there! $\endgroup$ – Andrew Grimm Nov 8 '15 at 5:26
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As another survivor of the US Naval nuclear power program, I'd like to add that ~2 years without maintenance, even assuming spent fuel storage was properly maintained, none of the pipes in the power plant proper would still have water in them.
The primary coolant absolutely must be pure and chemically treated, especially in a pressurized water reactor of that type.
My experience as a plumber/mechanic for submarines tells me there is no such thing as a pipe that doesn't leak, so two years of nobody looking after topping things up, will not only have empty pipes but dried sediment, probably with loverly, hard to find, hot spots of radioactive material.
I don't know if civilian plants keep distillation rigs on site, but our shipboard ones were powered by steam, so you have a bit of a pure water problem as well.

EDIT: This also assumes nobody has made off with any critical pieces of equipment in the interim.
Additionally, one of those critical pieces, that is not very mobile, are the reduction gears. Those are what take the 10s of thousands of RPMs your steam turbine would operate at, and reduce it to something the generator can cope with. If they are not properly cleaned and oiled before attempting to start, there could be trouble.

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Could you restart and run a nuclear power plant? If you're not a pro, you don`t even know yourself. So at best (worst) average Joe would believe that he can do it. And then he would most likely find out that he was wrong.


edit to clarify: Check against yourself. Can you do it? yes/no? Compare your pplant skills to average joes skills. Are you better/worse/same?

yes/better -> he cannot do it
yes/worse  -> he can do it
yes/same   -> up to your story
no/better  -> he could never ever do it
no/worse   -> he might have a chance 
no/same    -> he cannot do it
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    $\begingroup$ This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. $\endgroup$ – Burki Nov 2 '15 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ Just because an answer breaks the boundaries of your expecation does not mean it is not an answer. If you are an author and need info about "Average Joe" you should take a good look at yourself. You are the one person where you can get the best info about the question AND about how close you are to being "Average Joe" for the specific topic. If you cannot judge by looking at yourself, you are just lying to yourself, when you think you can judge by looking at others. (In that case you should accept that you simply don't know.) As I already said "AJ would believe ... and would be wrong! $\endgroup$ – J-S Nov 2 '15 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Burki This is an answer to the question, though it doesn't provide meaningful contribution in light of the existing answers and could probably have been provided without the implied aggression and/or snark. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Nov 2 '15 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ I did not mean to be aggressive in any way. And I don't see where I gave that impression. Questioning your own skills and checking the difference between yourself and your characters is what I suggest. Authors can easily get trapped by an idea like "I want them to restart the plant". Raise your head, look in the mirror and ask yourself "Could YOU restart it?" Probably not. Are you very different from AJ? ... then you have your answer. Where is the problem in accepting that you cannot do something? And why is it aggressive if someone tells you to verify that? $\endgroup$ – J-S Nov 2 '15 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ -1:logic fail. yes/better != cannot do it $\endgroup$ – the dark wanderer Nov 5 '15 at 9:19
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No. If you hadn't ever learned it, could you even start a (not auto-gear) car? No.

Could you even use a simple desktop computer? No.

In this case, you would probably succeed if you searched for documentation, books and other use info.

But in the case of a nuclear power plant, there is no such thing. It is a complex mechanism. You don't have any idea what you need to do. If you are a nuclear physicist, specializing in nuclear reactors, but without any knowledge of the actual control panel of the nuclear reactor type, maybe you have the same chance to succeed, but a very limited chance.

Honestly, you couldn't even restart a Coca Cola producing production line. You didn't find, where you can it power on. It is not so simple that you only press a button and you get cola. It is actually many machines, each of them with its know-how, and these machines work in interaction.

Do you remember as you sit before a computer first time in your life? Do you remember as you sit in a car first time in your life? Do you remember the complete chance-less feeling that you don't have even the slightest idea, what the hell is it?

A car, and a computer, both are designed for easy to use. Even a cola production line isn't. And a power plant, totally not.


In case of the nuclear power plants, there is a bonus mechanism to fight with. There are very hardcore safety system to prevent a core meltdown (explosion is impossible, but the society doesn't know this, and the core meltdown can have also a minimal risk for the people living around).

These are redundant systems, extending eachother, and in case of practically any "problematic", they will shot the power down. They are also passive systems: if you don't deserve them, they will also shot.

(For example: the boron controlling rods which are controlling the nuclear plants are controlled by electric motors. These electric motors must work against the weight of these rods. If they don't get power, the rods fall into the reactor core by their own weight, and the reactor stops. It is very important engineering feature: the "default behavior" of any part of the system must be that the power plant simply stops itself.)

From such systems there are many (at least 3, redundant), and you can only avoid them if you know all of them deeply. That, you can't do.


But, from the other side: such power plants must handle the case if their systems are powered off. If it is needed, they are often switched off from the power network or your country / continent, and in this case not only they can't give power to your country, but also they don't get.

But it is very important, i.e. if there is no power, you can't start the control room, which could start the power plant. :-)

For such cases, they have large diesel generators, which is capable to power the control system of the power plant for a long time. They have a lot of diesel oil, and well serviced.

It is not solar panel, they are costly and work only in daylight. Diesel generator is used since the first electronically controlled power plants (which were probably coal power plants, probably in the U.S., probably around 1850-1880).

If you have luck, you can find this oil in them. In your life, and maybe in the life of your children, it will be enough to heat your home.

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    $\begingroup$ These kind of complex industrial machines usually have very extensive documentations. Whether Average Joe can understand the documentation though... $\endgroup$ – Lie Ryan Nov 4 '15 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ Very poorly written. Needs to be gone through for proper grammar. Especially tense. $\endgroup$ – Citizen May 10 '16 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ @LieRyan If there would be a "tutorial for newbies", and Average Joe had at least on the level of a high school physics course, I think it would be enough. But there is no such thing there, people working on the place are expected to have years long education on the nuclear industry, and have an at least month long in-house training. $\endgroup$ – Gray Sheep May 10 '16 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Citizen Btw: a nuclear scientist knowing well the mechanisms and the design of the actual reactor, could maybe cause a core meltdown. It would be hard, it would require precious timings. Anybody other could at most shut down it. To explode it (like in Chernobyl) nobody on the Earth could, because it is physically impossible in every reactor since around 1947, except some Russian types (Chernobyl was one of them). $\endgroup$ – Gray Sheep May 12 '16 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Citizen Your pathologic hate against the nuclear energy isn't based on science, but on a psychological warfare. Actually, nuclear energy is the only viable energy source which doesn't produce CO2. The main problem, that it works also as a symbol of a civilization based on high-level technology, and this is why the green movements wants to destroy it, despite that with it even a zero-CO2 society would be achievable. $\endgroup$ – Gray Sheep May 12 '16 at 18:43

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