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Meteors and Nuclear Reactors: A Near Miss in the Urals

By Gar Smith
Thursday February 28, 2013 - 03:58:00 PM
1957 Mayak Plutonium Map
Gar Smith
1957 Mayak Plutonium Map
Monument to Mayak workers
Gar Smith
Monument to Mayak workers
Meteor Over Chelyabinsk
Gar Smith
Meteor Over Chelyabinsk

There are a lot of things that can spell trouble for nuclear reactors. They can be knocked offline or destroyed by earthquakes, floods, fires, drought, hurricanes and even solar flares. California's Diablo Canyon reactor once was shut down by tide of jellyfish-like salps. A reactor at Browns Ferry was set on fire by a worker using a candle to search for air leaks. And now there's a new, previously unseen threat on the horizon: supersonic rocks from outer space! 

A meteor that tore through the skies over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on February 15 should serve as a blazing wake-up call to pro- and –anti-nuclear partisans from Yekaterinburg to Kansas. Space scientists have been trying to tell us this kind of stuff happens all the time. Every day, more than 80 tons of interstellar stones rain down on planet Earth. Just because most of them flame out in the atmosphere or fall unseen in a wilderness area doesn't mean we aren't under constant bombardment. (For the record, the Chelyabinsk fireball — which measured 50 feet wide and weighed an estimated 7,700 tons — qualifies as a small asteroid.) 

And, yes, scientists tell us, significant events like the one that dazzled Chelyabinsk, do "hit home" with some regularity. According to NASA, fragments from 10-meter-wide meteoroids reach the Earth's surface about once every decade. (Within the just the last 60 years, several meteorites have smashed to Earth, damaging cars and homes in New York, Connecticut and Alabama.) Fortunately, larger impacts — like the 1908 Tunguska asteroid that flattened a Russian forest and the blast that gouged Arizona's Meteor Crater 50,000 years ago (once again, it was actually an asteroid that did the damage) are far less common. 

Meteors over Mayak  

Russia has been doubly unlucky in this astrological lottery, with two major strikes in 105 years. The 1908 meteor that exploded several miles above Krasnoyarsk Krai had a thermonuclear force greater than the explosion of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. The resulting blast leveled 80 million trees over an 830-square-mile stretch of forest. There were few eyewitnesses, however, since the region was largely wilderness. 

The fiery descent of the Chelyabinsk space rock was much more troubling. In addition to damaging factory roofs and smashing tens of thousands of windows, the meteor came uncomfortably close to Russia's once-secret Mayak nuclear facility, a 38-square-mile site that hosts the remains of six Cold War reactors and a sprawling waste storage site. 

Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, was quick to reassure the public that "the meteorite shower had not affected" the region's six operating nuclear facilities or the Mayak nuclear site. 

Located 50 miles northwest of Chelyabinsk, Mayak (and the nearby city of Ozyorsk) were both rocked by powerful shockwaves as the asteroid exploded with the force of 30 Hiroshima bombs, sending a shower of smoking space pebbles crashing to Earth. But, even before this too-close encounter, it's fair to say the Mayak site had racked up a star-crossed history. 

The massive industrial complex was a the home of the USSR's "Manhattan Project" — a secret Cold War hideaway for the reactors and reprocessing plants that produced plutonium for the USSR's nuclear arsenal. Mayak's uranium-graphite plutonium production reactors have been shut down, leaving two tritium-producing reactors (Ruslam and Lyudmila) still operating. Plans to add three new reactors were put on hold in 1993 following the Chernobyl accident but Russian authorities still have plans to build as many as four new 1,200 MW reactors by 2020. 

Mayak was the site of the "Kyshtym disaster," one of the world's worst nuclear accidents. In 1957, a storage tank ruptured, releasing 50-100 tons of radioactive waste that blanketed the eastern Urals, irradiating some 400,000 people and causing scores of radiation-related deaths. The accident (which was covered up for nearly 35 years) is now considered history's third worst nuclear accident — just behind the reactor explosions at Chernobyl and Fukushima. (A Freedom of Information Act request subsequently revealed the CIA had known about the explosion soon after it occurred but kept the accident secret to protect America's burgeoning nuclear power industry.) 

When Space Rocks Meet Reactors 

What might have happened if — instead of disappearing beneath the frozen waters of Chebarkul Lake — Russia's latest space-rock had crashed to earth close to one of Russia's nuclear reactors or waste dumps? Well, thanks to a pair of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists, we can draw a pretty clear conclusion: It wouldn't be pretty. 

In the early 1980s, MIT researchers Kosta Tsipis and Steve Fetter set out to explore what would happen if a single Russian missile carrying a one-megaton warhead were to strike a 1000-MW reactor inside the US. (To put this in perspective, the one-megaton payload of a Minuteman missile contains the explosive power of about 50 Hiroshima bombs — an impact well within the range of historical asteroid strikes.) 

Tsipis and Fetter estimated a post-impact dead-zone would extend more than 500 square miles. A fireball rising 12 miles into the sky would leave a 400-foot-deep crater while a rain of molten rock and radioactive ash would blanket more than 4,500 square miles. Anyone who could not relocate swiftly would be dead within two months. 

The MIT team noted that an exploding reactor is even "dirtier" than an exploding nuclear bomb. While a bomb's radiation blast is relatively short-lived, blasting open a reactor core scatters long-lived isotopes over the land. Tsipis and Fetter estimated the total loss from the destruction of a single reactor would be "of the order of 4,000 square-mile-years; consequently it would result in vast capital losses that would dwarf losses from any other single natural disaster in the history of the modern world." 

Mayak, of course, is also home to a sizable concentration of stored nuclear wastes and the MIT team considered the storage-site scenario as well. If a single 30-megaton blast were to explode over a nuclear waste storage site, the scientists concluded, the resulting fallout would extinguish all life in an area the size of Utah (85,000 square miles). After 10 years, this no-man’s-land would still equal the acreage of West Virginia (24,000 sq. mi.). 

If a space rock the size of a city bus were to come down over Chicago, it would most likely destroy most of the city and the human population along with it. Short of a fiery plunge into a major city, however, the second worst thing a speeding meteor could hit would be a nuclear facility — and there are now more than 435 nuclear sites around the globe, with plans for more than 80 new plants in the pipeline. 

Granted, the odds of a nuclear reactor getting hit by a chunk of flying space debris are pretty slim. It is far more likely that the next nuclear disaster will be caused by an extreme weather event, an earthquake, a power blackout caused by a solar flare, or simple human error. 

But now that it has become clear that our planet is (to a degree we previously never imagined) just one more rock in an occasionally bruising game of celestial rugby, this leaves us with the question: Do we really want to risk skewing the odds by placing any more nuclear reactors, reprocessing plants, waste storage sites or atomic bombs on the surface of Target Earth? 

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal, co-founder of Environmentalists Against War and author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green, October 2012).