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This may be a naive question, but after the Fukushima Daiichi partial meltdown and studying the aftermath of Chernobyl it seems they could be helped by this idea.

In Chernobyl, the liquidators that cleaned up the disaster tunneled concrete under the reactor core and covered the whole complex in a big containment unit. Why could they not have a 30 meter pit below a reactor filled with water with a trap door holding the reactor up? This pit could be very thick reinforced concrete similar to a missile silo If there were a meltdown or imminent meltdown and there were no other options the reactor core could be dropped into this pit by triggering the trap door and then perhaps have lead shot dumped on it or sealed in concrete.

This seems very simple but there must be some reason why this is not practical. I know that the core would still be hot and it would still be a problem but would this not be better than it being exposed to air?

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4 Answers 4

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Why could they not have a 30 meter pit below a reactor filled with water with a trap door holding the reactor up?

If you read about the Molten-Salt Reactor, you will find that it has something rather similar to this. In the image below, item number 13 is a freeze valve. If the reactor overheats, the plug melts and the molten core flows down to the tanks 10 and 11. This "escape route" would probably be passively cooled by something like atmospheric convection. Of course, this was just one design and we can't speak for all systems that might be used.

MSR

In the generation of reactors being built today, AREVA has implemented something called a "core catcher". It is basically a passively cooled sheet of metal at the bottom of the containment building that a molten core would fall on, and then be safely contained and cooled.

My latter example, however, is only a worst-case scenario because if at all possible, we would prefer to not harm the physical integrity of the fuel. The rods of present-generation nuclear fuel hold in radioactive gases at a pressure significantly above sea-level atmosphere pressure. If many of the rods break, then that is still a core failure, and will release lots of radioactivity. Because of our reliance on the physical integrity of a small thickness of heavily irradiated metal cladding, we really can't move it except under controlled conditions and very slowly.

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Just wanted to make one note; in the diagram above, everything that's colorized is irradiated, in addition to the metal cladding of the containment vessel. In the event of a meltdown, not only will the actual fissile material need to be contained for the long-term, but every component in the cooling loop is now radioactive scrap metal. –  KeithS Dec 11 '12 at 4:14
    
This is a very good and thought out answer. I am going to leave the question open for longer as it seems relatively popular but thank you. –  Michael Papile Dec 11 '12 at 23:15

I don't have much more than a interested amateur's understanding of the construction and operation of nuclear reactors, but...

If nothing else you add the task of insuring that this large, complicated system fails safely. And does so while managing the huge weight involved, despite the fact that the core is hooked to a complicated system of pipes carrying water that is likely tritated and may be contaminated and that system is coupled to a second water loop that needs to be guaranteed to remain clean.

Your system needs to be arranged so that the core material does not fall into a dense pile, and has to insure that despite the large weight of the core material and the possibility of very high temperatures.

And all of that has to be fit into a containment structure that is already a huge project to build (and yes, they are contained from below as well as the sides and top ... else what happens to the nearby ground wanter).


A lot of engineering effort has gone into attempts to design "intrinsically safe" reactor starting decades ago when the first of the Generation III reactors went in. Alas, this has proved harder than expected.

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The density argument is interesting. if it is dropped into a pit it could end up expediting the fission process by putting the materials closer together. I understand that other parts are certainly contaminated but again this is asking about a severe issue like experienced in chernobyl and Fukushima and would be an absolute last resort. –  Michael Papile Dec 11 '12 at 23:05
    
The "fail safe" comment isn't really about what happens at last resort---we can probably insure that what you propose is no worse than the current situation (cone in the middle of the drop pit to hopefully spread the core as it comes down?)---but about what happens if the drop-pit system fails during otherwise normal operation. Certainly people have thought about passive last resort system (e.g. water moderated reactors), but the industry has not been satisfied as yet. –  dmckee Dec 11 '12 at 23:16

By the time the core melts it is probably way beyond passive cooling. If you read up on the Chernobyl event they went to great lengths to prevent the core from melting its way into a water reservoir beneath the reactor (the bubbler pool) for fear it would result in a steam explosion. Three Russians in diving suits performed a suicide mission: entered the bubbler pool and opened the sluice gates to drain it. They died very soon after from radiation poisoning.

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If you could incorporate some more conceptual explanation of why this is true into your answer, that would be great! :) –  Manishearth Dec 11 '12 at 10:07
    
Yes agreed. I did read up on the "liquidators" and the concern that if the molten core hit the water there would be a massive explosion that would render a huge area uninhabitable. –  Michael Papile Dec 11 '12 at 22:50

If the core ever touches air during its meltdown, it will get so hot that it will maintain a steady independent reaction that will continue until the fuel is spent. It is so hot that it melts through concrete, steel and other man-made obstacles. If it were to hit water, the steam that would result would be disastrous. It would put tons of radioactive particles into the atmosphere.

Modern reactors are equipped with several layers of concrete in case of a total meltdown.

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@user16794 : My thoughts exactly. –  Vert Dec 11 '12 at 19:56
    
Well could the reactor "pit" not have a similar concrete protection? I know that this is not an optimal waste disposal solution but is it not better than having it in open air on top of concrete? –  Michael Papile Dec 11 '12 at 22:59

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