RogerBW's Blog

Nuclear Legacy Designer's Notes 25 February 2016

I had an article in Pyramid #3/88 dealing with abandoned nuclear reactors and other sources of radioactive fun.

I'd been reading about nuclear procedures and accidents for another project, and the post-apocalyptic theme gave me an opportunity to explore a reasonably obscure, not to say speculative, branch of knowledge. Nobody has abandoned a nuclear plant completely, unless it had already gone badly wrong: even the Chernobyl site is monitored, and occasional remedial work is done there.

The short version: if you are abandoning a nuclear reactor, or vehicle, in a hurry, that is on a timescale involving less than months or years of careful and expensive preparation, you probably won't want to come back.

I was amazed to find out how shallow the Yucca Mountain repository turned out to be (only 50m down!). Putting the site on a major fault line too smacks of carelessness. Or, of course, conspiracy.

The feel of an abandoned, irradiated site is very like that of an empty city, but it may well be one that's in better shape than others in the post-apocalyptic world: after all, it hasn't been effectively scavenged. Some windows have cracked, some buildings are sloughing off pieces as the wind and rain take their toll, but there hasn't been much plant or animal damage as you'd expect. In a post-apocalyptic game, player characters who remember the old days may well have flashbacks to the way things used to be. The photos on Elena Filatova's hoax site (actually taken on official tours or in other locations, or used uncredited from other sources) give a good idea of the ambience.

Birds, which have a higher radiation tolerance than most other life forms, may move into the niches normally occupied by other animals, similarly to the way they get into a ground-scavenging role on some Australian islands where rats have never been imported.

How else can this material be used, apart from the "end of civilisation" scenario?

  • An economic failure, especially combined with scientifically illiterate politicians (perish the thought), might well lead to facilities being abandoned rather than decommissioned. Shortly afterwards, things go badly wrong, but there's a civil infrastructure to try to deal with the problems.

  • A reactor powering a base on another planet might well be abandoned when the mission is done, though one would hope it could be got into a safely stable state.

  • If nuclear warheads are stolen but not used, perhaps traded between illegal groups in return for substantial other assets, they'll decay to unusability within a few years, though they'd still be useful for construction of new devices. (Personally I regard the R-bomb, one of the several things described as a "dirty bomb", as much more of a threat than a nuclear detonation: wrap radioactive fragments or dust round a substantial explosive core, and you have all the terror of radiation release, but a far less technically demanding job to produce it than you would if you were trying to set off a warhead.)

Oh, and Randall Munroe put it well:


  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:59pm on 25 February 2016

    Do we know why birds have a higher radiation tolerance? I'm thinking about hollow bones but I could be wrong.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:08pm on 25 February 2016

    Lots of theories, nothing definitive.

  3. Posted by Dr Bob at 07:51pm on 27 February 2016

    When you say 'birds', does that genuinely mean all birds, or is it a case of someone did the tolerance experiments on lab animals such as pigeons and zebra finches, then extrapolated it to all life forms with feathers?

    Birds... vulnerable to DDT but immune to radiation! :-)

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 07:56pm on 27 February 2016

    I don't know how widely it's been tested, but certainly there are wild birds nesting in the fiercely radioactive buildings of Chernobyl and not apparently taking harm from it; some of them have slightly malformed tail feathers, but they aren't being out-bred by non-malformed birds.

  5. Posted by Dr Bob at 04:26pm on 28 February 2016

    Ah, yes. There's all sorts of wildlife round Chernobyl that's doing quite well, because no-one goes there to shoot, poison or otherwise disturb them.

    I wonder if it is a situation like the Mexican/Central American birds that are lining their nests with the 'fluff' from discarded cigarette butts? Advantage - the nests have far fewer parasites 'cos of the nicotine, so you raise more chicks. Disadvantage - the chicks start showing signs of nicotine related disorders later in life.

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 04:38pm on 28 February 2016

    Yes, there's that, but the small mammals for example do show clear evidence of harm from mutation, and the decay organisms are so thoroughly disrupted that corpses just lie in place with minimal rotting until something eats them.

  7. Posted by Dr Bob at 04:52pm on 29 February 2016

    Unrotted corpses? Oooh, I think I may just have found a scenario for Night's Black Agents! :-)

  8. Posted by John Dallman at 11:19pm on 01 March 2016

    There's lots of weird stuff round Chernobyl. The pine forest that turned red and died, but is still mostly standing (no decay organisms) is a fine one. You have read the Charlie Stross story about it, I presume?

    http://www.tor.com/2012/07/20/a-tall-tail/ for anyone who hasn't.

  9. Posted by RogerBW at 09:40am on 02 March 2016

    Yup. "Red Mercury" is one of those terribly flexible myths.

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