lundi 21 mars 2011

“Core melt accident”, “meltdown” and “nuclear stress test” – expressions of the week


Le présent billet a été rédigé par Jonathan Goldberg, que je remercie. Une traduction en français sera publiée prochainement sur ce blog.

The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary gives many definitions of the word “core”. The following three definitions indicate its different usages:

1. a central and often foundational part usually distinct from the enveloping part by a difference in nature, such as the core of the city or the usually inedible central part of some fruits …

2. a basic, essential, or enduring part (as of an individual, a class, or an entity); the staff had a core of experts;  the core of her beliefs ; the core of the argument.


3. a part (as a thin cylinder of material) removed from the interior of a mass especially to determine composition


The word “core” entered English in the 14th Century, probably from old French coeur, meaning the core of fruit, from the Latin cor. In the context of nuclear science, it has been used since 1949.
A “core melt accident” is an event or sequence of events that result in the melting of part of the fuel in a reactor core. (United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

A related word is “meltdown”. This is often used to describe a sudden or disastrous decline, such as the recent “economic meltdown” of Ireland. In the nuclear context it refers to “the accidental melting of the core of a nuclear reactor “(Merriam Webster Online Dictionary). That word was created in 1956. Since 1979 it has also been used in a figurative sense of a breakdown of self-control, often caused by fatigue or overstimulation.


Japanese nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi, Japan

Nuclear stress test

Traditionally, the term “nuclear stress test” has been used in a medical context to denote a type of isotope stress test. The patient walks on a treadmill, a scanning camera takes image of the heart and these are used to identify the location, severity and extent of reduced blood flow (ischemia) to the heart. (HeartSite.com)




The term is now being used in a more literal sense, in the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis, to denote a safety check given to nuclear reactors. One recent headline dated March 16 (using “stress test” as a verb)  states: EU agrees to “stress test” bloc’s nuclear facilities.


The article refers to a decision taken on March 15 by EU energy ministers, atomic energy regulators and industry officials to subject all nuclear reactors within the 27 EU nations to safety checks.

For articles on meltdowns in nuclear, economic and political contexts (all relating to Japan), see:


Meltdown macroeconomicsThe New York Times, March 15, 2011

Japan’s Meltdown and the Global Economy’s, New York Times, March 17, 2011

Political meltdownThe Economist, April 17, 1997

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