Blackhat – Much Ado About Nearly Nothing

January 19, 2015, 5:13PMANS Nuclear Cafe

By Leslie Corrice

There was considerable concern within the nuclear energy community about Michael Mann's cyber-thriller Blackhat before its release. Much of the pre-release angst was generated by the trailers, which showed a catastrophic nuclear accident had blown open a gaping hole in a large, domed containment building. I went to see it the first day it hit the local cinema, and early on I suspected that the nuclear energy community's angst was literally much ado about nearly nothing.

My first inkling was early on, when the control room was shown. I almost laughed because it had wall-to-wall windows overlooking a vast, steaming open pool of water. First-off, there are no windows in actual nuclear power plant control rooms. Also, the depicted control room looked much like a high-tech Press Box at a modern professional football stadium. Regardless, I was curious about the hot-water pool. I wondered if that was supposed to be the reactor. My speculation was soon verified. There was a series of long, vertical metal pipes deep within the pool-the supposed core. Surrounding these pipes were several rotating fan-like devices. It seems that these were supposed to be the circulation pumps.

After a brief computer-graphic depiction of a malware bug invading the fantasy plant's computer system, the fans speed up and fly apart. The metal pipes immediately begin to get red from massive heat generation gets so bad that there's an explosion that blows open the domed containment, a la Chernobyl.

It's Hollywood, folks. There is literally nothing real-world about the nuke in the flick. It doesn't matter that all nuclear power plant control room operating systems are not connected to the internet. It doesn't matter that a massive power surge generating cataclysmic heat generation is only possible in units having a positive reactivity coefficient (Chernobyl, again). What matters is that this is purely the fabrication of creative Hollywood minds doing their best to exploit public fears about nukes spawned by skewed Press and internet reports concerning the Fukushima Accident. It is a pure fiction.

There's a lot more to nit-pick over concerning the nuclear plant in Blackhat, but as a colleague writes, "This has so much wrong in the depiction of a nuclear power plant accident that it may not be useful to do a detailed rebuttal." I agree whole-heartedly because, again, it is much ado about nearly nothing.

My earlier career in nuclear energy included operations at both boiling and pressurized water nukes, but my specialty was health physics. One nit I do wish to relate concerns my understanding of radiation exposure. Before the cast enters the control room to retrieve a key hard drive, they are told the radiation level is 1,000 microsieverts per hour and the temperature was 130 oF. Thus, they could not stay in there more than eight minutes. One member of the team succumbs in less than five minutes. Was it from the heat, or the radiation? We never find out, but the implication that he was overcome by the radiation is pretty strong. Actual medically-observable adverse effects do not occur at a little over 13 millisieverts exposure. In fact, nothing like that has ever happened with exposures ten times greater, or even 50 times greater.

In my opinion, here's the bottom line. The script was written to appeal to the movie-going audience. Most of the public is willing to believe a nuclear power plant accident of the depicted magnitude is possible. This is why I say that pre-release concerns were much ado about nearly nothing. The movie appeals to the public's nuclear power plant naivety and reinforces Fukushima-spawned fears, which is something worth considering.

corrice-168x160Leslie Corrice spent 21 years in the nuclear field in health physics. He publishes the Hiroshima Syndrome website and posts two blogs: Fukushima Updates and Fukushima Commentary.