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Can a Nuclear Reactor Explode Like an Atomic Bomb? Essay

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Updated: Apr 2nd, 2022

Introduction

In 2011, the Fukushima dai-ichi prefecture in Japan was impacted by a tsunami that severely damaged the nuclear power plant that was situated near the coast. Almost immediately there were fears of a potential nuclear explosion, with many residents fearing for their lives (Schwantes et al., 2012). While it may be true that there was a release of radioactive energy, in what is now known as the greatest industrial accident since Chernobyl, the fact remains that the rate of energy release and the means by which it affected the surrounding region is drastically different as compared to what normally occurs during the detonation of a nuclear bomb (Schwantes et al., 2012). The fact is that a nuclear reactor is not designed in the same way as an atomic bomb, as such, despite the abundance of material that could cause a nuclear explosion, the means by which this possible is simply not present.

Understanding How Atomic Bombs Detonate

Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission is the basic principle behind an atomic explosion wherein vast amounts of energy are released all at once as a direct result of free neutrons impacting the nucleus of an atom (Stankunas, 2012). This creates a process known as “fission” (i.e. the nucleus of an atom splitting into two smaller atoms) which then subsequently releases another neutron which impacts another atom which then starts the process all over again (Stankunas, 2012). This occurs in a relatively short span of time until the fission process reaches a critical mass point (i.e. the point where there is a runaway cascade of enumerable nuclear fissions) resulting in a subsequent release of energy in the form of an atomic explosion.

Nuclear Material Needed

While nuclear reactors do contain “fissable” material (i.e. radioactive material that is decomposing into another type of matter), the fact remains that a certain degree of stability is required in the radioactive material needed in order to achieve a sufficient enough explosion (Gharpure, 2013). This often comes in the form of Uranium-235 which is enriched via centrifugal processes in order to have the necessary atomic density to create a large explosion (Gharpure, 2013).

Detonating a Nuclear Bomb

In order to get the radioactive material to release all its stored energy at once, it is necessary to setup a series of explosives around a nuclear core of radioactive material. Through the use of a timer, it is the job of the explosives to detonate in such a way that they compress the radioactive material together which causes the process of fission to begin (Salvatores, 2012). Without a means of sudden compression, it would be nearly impossible to cause even the most highly enriched uranium to detonate. You could use a hammer and hit it all you want without even causing anything even remotely resembling an explosion.

Design of Nuclear Reactors

Nuclear reactors are designed in such a way that they utilize the controlled release of energy from nuclear fuel rods in the form of heat energy to convert water into steam which is then expelled via high pressure valves through turbines which convert the mechanical energy into electrical energy (Nuclear fission, 2013). While it is possible for nuclear reactors to malfunction and produce excessive amounts of heat due to unstable reactions within the core, the resulting explosion is usually the result of heated steam escaping from the reactor. Energy is also released during such a process, however, it is not explosive nuclear energy instead it is merely the ambient heat energy released from the continuing nuclear fission process in the fuel rods. Background radiation is also released as a direct result of exposure of the fuel rods to the outside atmosphere (Jammes et al., 2010).

Conclusion

Based on what has been presented it can be seen that a nuclear reactor is simply not designed in the same way as an atomic bomb which prevents it from releasing energy in the same manner.

Reference List

Gharpure, Y. H. (2013). Nuclear Fission. Chemical Business, 27(6), 34.

Jammes, C. C., Filliatre, P. P., Geslot, B. B., Oriol, L. L., Berhouet, F. F., Villard, J. F., & Vermeeren, L. L. (2010). Research Activities in Fission Chamber Modeling in Support of the Nuclear Energy Industry. IEEE Transactions On Nuclear Science, 57(6), 3678-3682.

Nuclear fission. (2013). Chemical Business, 27(6), 40.

Salvatores, M. (2012). Neutronics for critical fission reactors and subcritical fission in hybrids. AIP Conference Proceedings, 1442(1), 79-92.

Schwantes, J. M., Orton, C. R., & Clark, R. A. (2012). Analysis of a Nuclear Accident: Fission and Activation Product Releases from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Facility as Remote Indicators of Source Identification, Extent of Release, and State of Damaged Spent Nuclear Fuel. Environmental Science & Technology, 46(16), 8621-8627.

Stankunas, G. (2012). Fractal model of fission product release in nuclear fuel. International Journal Of Modern Physics C: Computational Physics & Physical Computation, 23(9), -1.

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