If a nuclear reactor is in danger of overheating, due to a catastrophic loss of coolant, or withdrawing control rods all the way, causing critical mass, the fuel contained within overheats. If the coolant systems and their backup are all working fine, nothing happens, and nothing from here on occurs.

If the reactor gets dangerously close to a meltdown, the reactor can get Scrammed, where it is stopped completely. On a nuclear submarine, seawater is dumped into it to emergency cool it, but it ruins the reactor permanently for the sub (but beware of a Cold Water accident which makes it worse).

The radioactive fuel gets so hot that it begins to melt the container. Once it gets hot enough, it could come in contact with the coolant/water and create an explosion of radioactive steam. That's the first danger, as it could blow the roof off and contaminate the environment for miles around.

Secondly, the core gets so hot it melts together into a slag, and melts/bores its way down into the ground, The China Syndrome.

No nuclear reactor has ever completely melted down, Chernobyl was very close, but didn't completely. It blew the roof and even set the graphite on fire, along with the concrete. It never got to the China Syndrome stage AFAIK.

Three Mile Island had a partial meltdown, but it was contained within the building, keeping the surroundings mostly safe.

If you want to hear a really good account of what goes wrong, step by step, read Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October. The same thing almost happened to James Bond in The World is Not Enough

Meltdown
Red Dwarf - Series Four - Episode Six

The vast majority of Red Dwarf episodes go for a classic British comedy full of smegma and curry. Thats not to say this is a bad thing - it is actually quite good. However, there are times with the writers sneak something more into the script - some deeper moral or bit of philosophy that makes you sit back and think for a bit. Such is the case with Meltdown.

A (very) brief summary:

  • Rimmer bores everyone with a story of Risk (showing how obsessed he is with the idea of commanding an army)
  • Kryten discovers a matter transporter.
  • Everyone beams down to a planet populated by wax droids engaged in combat - the good (philosophers, pacifists, and religious officals) against the bad (Hitler, Caligula, Rasputin, etc...) which the bad guys have (obviously) been winning.
  • Rimmer falls in with the good bunch and tries making them into an army.
  • Big conflict - all of the good guys get shot (as a decoy) except for Queen Victoria who gets into the villain headquarters and lets loose with a machine gun. Kryten turns up the heat and melts the rest.
  • All the wax droids are dead (after millions of years of breaking the limitations of their programs)
  • The crew returns back to Red Dwarf

In case you missed it there: All the wax droids are dead. It is at this point that the writers sneak in their moral part. Well, sneak isn't quite the right word - they come right out and shout it through the voice of Lister.

Lister
How many survived?
Rimmer
Well, we haven't had time to make a full official estimate, but at a rough guess - and obviously, this is subject to alteration pending information updates - round about... none of them.
Lister
So you wiped out the entire population of this planet?
Rimmer
You make it sound so negative, Lister. Don't you see? The deranged menace that once threatened this world is vanquished!
Lister
No it isn't, pal - you're still 'ere.
Rimmer
I've brought about PEACE! Peace, freedom and democracy!
Lister
Yeah, Rimmer. Right. Absolutely. Now all the corpses that litter that battlefield can just lie there, safe in the knowledge that they snuffed it under a flag of peace, and can now happily decompose in a land of freedom. Ya smeghead.
Rimmer
There really is no pleasing some people, is there?
Lister
Well, thank you...
Kryten
At least we got the matter paddle back.
Lister
Well, there's nothin' to stay here for. Let's get back.
Rimmer
Oh, shouldn't we go out on to the battlefield and bask in the glory of victory?
At this point Lister gets Holly to give him his "light-bee" (hologram projector) and swallows it saying "It's OK - he'll come out in a couple of days. After he's been through what he's put us through."

It is a mark of a good comedic series that doesn't have to resort to "this is a special episode" type advertisements that appear in all too many series today in an attempt to garner a wider audience. From the tradition of M*A*S*H mixing the serious messages and the laughs this episode excels in both comedic value and shines with its deeper messages.

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