|Fig. 1: Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, in 2010. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)|
The Simpsons, a widely popular satirical American cartoon sitcom, tells stories of the citizens of Springfield. Used as a vehicle for representing your stereotypical American town, Springfield is in fact imaginary. But Springfield would not be recognisable were it not for its nuclear power plant. Every skyline shot depicts two cooling towers in the background, regardless of the direction the town it is viewed from. Of course this would not be possible in the real world, but it is in the cartoon world, and Matt Groening (see Fig. 1), the genius behind the Simpsons, used the cooling towers as a marker: a sign that would tell the viewer that the town they see is Springfield. So the cooling towers are what makes Springfield recognisable, but what do we actually know about them and the rest of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant?
A hotbed for safety violations, Springfield Nuclear Power Plant is a pressurised water reactor nuclear power plant with two cooling towers.  It is responsible for providing most of the energy used by the town of Springfield and is owned by Mr Burns, an old man notorious for his miserliness. The plant's safety director is Homer Simpson, one of the main characters, an individual Groening tells us has an IQ of 55. As a result, it is no surprise that when the time came for a surprise safety inspection, the plant had 342 safety violations, and was told it would need to spend somewhere in the region of $56 million to bring everything into line. Of course, this is pocket change when you consider that the average nuclear reactor unit in the USA costs approximately $9 billion in upkeep every year, but that is part of the success of the show: the deviations from reality. For example, some of the violations brought up by the safety inspection of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant included:
Skeletons in the basement
Luminous rats running rampant
Emergency exits were just painted onto the walls
Cracked cooling towers
The disposal of nuclear waste in a children's playground
Plutonium used as a paperweight
But these violations become even more ironic when compared to reality. At Chernobyl for example, there actually are skeletons in the basement - of brave men and women who knowingly sacrificed their lives to save those of other people. When it comes to rats, it is physically impossible to make them luminous. Then there is the fact that the pipes in cooling towers cannot be cracked because the low-pressure stages of the steam turbines wouldn't work if that were the case. We also know that the home for nuclear waste is actually concrete boxes on site - not children's playgrounds - and finally, plutonium could not be used as a paperweight because a ball 10.2 cm (4") in diameter has critical mass. The critical mass is even smaller if the pad under the ball is made of a reflecting material, such as beryllium.
In the show, since most violations were never addressed, the plant, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes close to meltdown (even though nuclear reactors actually blow up) on several occasions. While Homer's blind luck invariably saves the day and no nuclear catastrophe ever occurs, the implied threat to the town from the reactor is ever present.
The depiction of nuclear power and the safety of individual plants in The Simpsons, while amusing, may be harmful when viewed in a wider societal context. Millions of people around the world have watched, do watch and will watch the Simpsons. Its impact is far reaching. So, reinforcing stereotypes - that nuclear power plants are unsafe and run by individuals who don't know what is going on - may end up being more damaging than anything else. Of course the show is meant to be understood as a satirical commentary on American society, but when dealing with topics like nuclear safety, intentions can often be misunderstood and inaccurate impressions formed.
© Misha Wilcockson. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
 S. Gupta, "Nuclear in Popular Culture," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.