Friday, February 15, 2013

The Meteorite Over Russia–and Its Nuclear Facilities

When I think of a meteorite, it’s usually the one that hits Earth at the beginning of The War of the Worlds (1953). In that movie, you start with this:

meteor

And end up with this:

waroftheworlds

The meteorite that flew over Russia today provided some very striking videos itself, minus Martians and heat rays. This video shows both the tail and and the air burst, complete with shattering glass and a lot of car alarms going off:

The title means Explosion in Chelyabinsk. Naturally, we were curious about the nuclear plants in the region. The closest to where many of the videos were taken is also called Chelyabinsk, about 140 miles distant, but it looks as though Rosatom, the Russian nuclear authority, got more questions about Mayak, which is not a reactor but a reprocessing plant.

Russia’s state-run atomic agency, Rosatom, said there were no damage to the nuclear facilities in the region and all operations continued as usual. Mayak nuclear plant -- one of the largest nuclear facilities of Rosatom -- is located in the area that was hit by the meteorite.

“All facilities are working as usual. They haven’t been damaged by the meteorite strike,” a Rosatom source said.

We may say that the risk of a large meteorite striking a nuclear energy facility – or anything else – is vanishingly small. From the NRC’s Safety Regulations:

2.10 Extraterrestrial Activity (Meteorite Strikes, Satellite Falls) Extraterrestrial activity is considered to be natural satellites such as meteors or artificial satellites that enter the earth's atmosphere from space. Because the probability of a meteorite strike is very small (less than 10-9) (NUREG/CR-5042, Suppl. 2), it can be dismissed on the basis of its low initiating event frequency.

It would be more plausible as a SyFy channel movie than as a reality. There are different opinions as to whether this meteor struck the earth (meteorite) or did not (meteor) – the growing consensus is that it did, but I imagine we’ll find out for sure soon enough. In the meantime, the Washington Post has posted a bunch of information about meteor(ite)s

Q: How common are meteorite strikes?

A: Experts say smaller strikes happen five to 10 times a year. Large impacts such as the one Friday in Russia are rarer but still occur about every five years, according to Addi Bischoff, a mineralogist at the University of Muenster in Germany. Most of these strikes happen in uninhabited areas where they don’t injure humans.

I guess the Post has gone with meteorite on this. This has added considerable excitement to a Friday, not least because it’s the first large meteor(ite) caught on video by so many people, probably a gold mine for astronomers and definitely a exciting event for everyone all over – how else would we have a chance to see something like this? Good to know that Russian consumer society has grown to the point that so many folks have phone video devices.

But:

Let’s remember that this event has had a human toll, with glass blowing out from the air bursts and hurting people in its path. The current figure is more than 1000 injured and no casualties. Let’s hope that latter number remains zero.

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Now, that’s the meteor. What about the asteroid, DA14? Well, it’s coming upon us even as we speak. You can keep track of it as it passes as close as 17,000 miles. That puts it between the moon and the earth and there’s a slim possibility that it could smack into a satellite. But, let’s be clear, not the earth. The asteroid is about three times the size of the meteor.

Visit here for a dashboard that provides screens for Live Jet Propulsion Laboratory Video, Live NASA TV Channel - to carry fly by later today, Live Russian Television (Russia will be able to see it during their night), What the world is saying about the asteroid on social media (updated live) and What NASA is saying about the asteroid on social media (updated live).

What’s the difference between an asteroid and a meteor? An asteroid is a small object that orbits the sun. (Comets do, too, but generate a small atmosphere and tail; asteroids do not.) Meteors are space debris, smaller than asteroids, but otherwise similar. The Russian meteor(ite) did not chip off from DA14.

No nuclear connection I can find, but who cares? May we continue to live in interesting times.

UPDATE 2:30: That was fast. Asteroid back out to space. We can still see pictures and video of it as it speeds away.

5 comments:

jimwg said...

Ironic. Only a year ago I among some nuclear advocates were joking that anti-nukers would probably dredge up asteroid-proofing reactors as another stall to stop nuclear plants with unreasonable pricey protections, and now this Russian meteor just stroked up that fantasy issue. Life is funny.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Anonymous said...

Do you mean to say the Russians actually reprocess used nuclear fuel? Say it isn't so, comrade... or did someone else say, "You didn't build that!"

Anonymous said...

Given as the kinetic energy of this meteorite was the size of a boosted fission device I would say that a strike on a nuclear facility would be far from the worst case. Had the meteorite not exploded in the air and had instead struck ground in a populated city it would have been far more devestating than if it had struck a nuclear facility. Given as there are several orders of magnitude more cities than there are nuclear facilities the risk of an impact on one is much greater. A nuclear facility being struck is far from the worst case because most (at least in the USA) are in largely unpopulated areas and the radioactive material released would result in cancer related deaths far fewer than if a nearby city were decimated by a 50kT explosion.

Anonymous said...

It is more likely that a meteor would land in the sea and perhaps produce a tsunami which could affect a nuclear power station.

Anonymous said...

Out of interest. Can anyone explain what the 10 to the -9 means.

Is it one in a billion per year per plant, or one in a billion per year over the whole country or what?