Science: Idaho Blowdown

Staging a nuclear accident

It is a nightmare that has nagged scientists since the dawn of nuclear power. A cooling-system pipe ruptures. The temperature of the nuclear reactor's core fuel shoots up, melting its zircaloy shielding. Finally the heat becomes so intense that the entire domed building disintegrates, leaking out a cloud of radioactive fallout that kills tens of thousands of people.

That gloomy scenario is, happily, still no more than hypothetical. But could such a blowdown, as scientists call it, really occur? Most officials say the risk is...

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