Nuclear Energy

What is a meltdown, and what does it have to do with the “China Syndrome”?

A meltdown is a type of accident in a nuclear reactor in which the fuel core melts, resulting in the release of dangerous amounts of radiation. In most cases the large containment structure that houses a reactor would prevent the radioactivity from escaping. However, there is a small possibility that the molten core could become hot enough to burn through the floor of the containment structure and go deep into the earth. Nuclear engineers call this type of situation the “China Syndrome.” The phrase derives from a discussion on the theoretical problems that could result from a meltdown, when a scientist commented that the molten core could bore a hole through the earth, coming out—if one happened to be standing in North America—in China. Although the scientist was grossly exaggerating, some took him seriously. In fact, the core would only bore a hole about 30 feet (10 meters) into the earth, but even this distance would have grave repercussions. All reactors are equipped with emergency systems to prevent such an accident from occurring.


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