Nuclear Fuel in a Reactor Accident

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  09 Mar 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6073, pp. 1184-1188
DOI: 10.1126/science.1211285

You are currently viewing the abstract.

View Full Text

Log in to view the full text

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution

Mechanics of a Meltdown

For all the potential hazards presented by nuclear power plants, there have been very few incidents that have caused human or environmental harm. However, those that have happened have often had disastrous consequences, for example, the accidents at Chernobyl in Ukraine and, just last year, at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. Burns et al. (p. 1184; see the cover) review the state of knowledge on the chemical and physical processes following the nuclear reactor accident and how these results may inform decision-making during future events. Because a large portion of prior research has focused on radionuclide transport following leaks from nuclear waste repositories, and not active reactors, experiments at the more extreme conditions experienced in major nuclear core-melt accidents may have more predictive value.


Nuclear accidents that lead to melting of a reactor core create heterogeneous materials containing hundreds of radionuclides, many with short half-lives. The long-lived fission products and transuranium elements within damaged fuel remain a concern for millennia. Currently, accurate fundamental models for the prediction of release rates of radionuclides from fuel, especially in contact with water, after an accident remain limited. Relatively little is known about fuel corrosion and radionuclide release under the extreme chemical, radiation, and thermal conditions during and subsequent to a nuclear accident. We review the current understanding of nuclear fuel interactions with the environment, including studies over the relatively narrow range of geochemical, hydrological, and radiation environments relevant to geological repository performance, and discuss priorities for research needed to develop future predictive models.

View Full Text

Stay Connected to Science

Editor's Blog