Kickass scientist Susan Beaver–who’s also the former associate director of the Reed Research Reactor–joined us in Episode 114 – Meltdown to talk about the actual science of nuclear reactors. Unfortunately, the downside of talking about complex science on a comics podcast is that there’s never enough time to go into as much depth as we’d like. Luckily for us–and you–Susan was kind enough to write a follow-up, discussing some of the terms and concepts we had to gloss over in the episode proper. -Jay
As I got to say in the episode, the fourteen-page rundown of basic nuclear fission and the Chernobyl disaster that starts of Havok and Wolverine: Meltdown is surprisingly accurate, aside from attributing the human errors to a nefarious conspiracy rather than a combination of bad design and bad judgment. But one thing that the artistic overview doesn’t explain is a term that comes up a couple times in the comic, and that’s the term “prompt critical”.
It surprised me to see that term come up in the comic, since most of the time when people in entertainment industries throw around concepts regarding nuclear reactors they’re getting them wrong. (If you’ve ever had a career that gets depicted in movies and television shows–I’m looking at you, CSI techs and nurses–you know exactly what I mean.) So to see the comic getting a lot right was a welcome surprise. Radiation signs posted the correct way up instead of rotated 30 degrees! Neutron moderation! Control rods! And, of course, the sinister-sounding (not Sinister-sounding, though in this comic you have to be careful) phrase “prompt critical.”
So what happens when a nuclear reactor goes prompt critical?