NZ Herald: Inside a nuclear reactor

Herald senior feature writer Chris Barton visits Grenoble nuclear power station and meets a New Zealander involved in particle physics…

An excerpt: Read in full here.

“Inside Level D, the top floor, an overhead crane bisects the roof dome. The space has a central structure, festooned with gantries, mysterious machinery, and pipes and tubes running every which way. As we step up to the scaffolding platform poolside, we’re advised to make sure nothing falls in. It’s the sort of warning that immediately has me clutching my glasses.

“The view through crystal-clear water into the core, about 15 metres below, is eerie – the deep is bathed in a violet blue glow that’s strangely beautiful and unnerving. Cherenkov light – named after the Russian physicist Pavel Cherenkov who discovered it – is one of the few ways to actually see nuclear radiation. It’s caused by energetic particles travelling extremely fast in the water – so fast in fact they make a sort of sonic boom of blue light.

“Why are they going so fast? Well, there’s stuff going on in the deep blue involving nuclear fuel, splitting of atoms and the emitting of things like beta particles which buzz about the place. It’s these little buggers that have me worried. I know from my meagre understanding of physics that they can penetrate living matter and change the structure of molecules they smack into – mostly doing very bad things.”