3-3: On Meteors and Radiation

As the whole world is now aware, on February 15 at 9:20 AM (local time), a 15-meter wide meteor exploded over Siberia, releasing several kilotons of energy. The explosion occurred over Chelyabinsk, a region of Russia with almost 1.1 million inhabitants that is considered a center for nuclear facilities and the Russian military industry. Additionally, for years, Russia has used Chelyabinsk to bury thousands of tons of radioactive waste, and one of its nuclear facilities, Mayak, has a number of nuclear reactors and stores radioactive waste. So after the meteor exploded and caused many more massive explosions that collapsed infrastructure, the biggest fear in everyone’s minds was radiation. As Vladimir Chuprov, the head of the energy program at Greenpeace, explained, the situation is very grave: “there is storage for several dozen tons of Plutonium; in the case the storage becomes insecure, it would mean that Russia would lose the entire Ural region.”

chelyabinsk

In many ways, we’ve framed the debate over nuclear security in terms of diplomacy—we don’t want nuclear technologies to get into the wrong hands. But after this week’s events, does it not seem that we are placed at equal risk from accidental release of nuclear materials? — Madhu

4 thoughts on “3-3: On Meteors and Radiation

  1. Madhu makes a great point here; inherent to nuclear weapons is some threat of accidental release or an unplanned nuclear event. Thus far, our discussions have focused on scenarios in which one country engages in war with others and uses nuclear weapons, but we have not fully considered the probability of an unintentional nuclear event. With every nuclear device, there is some risk of accident, and with stockpiles around the world as high as they are, that risk may not be insignificant, especially considering unpredictable events like a meteor or massive seismic event. What’s worse, states like North Korea or other less responsible actors may not be adequately securing their nuclear material; beyond the risk of greater proliferation is the risk of some catastrophic accident.

  2. Madhu’s comment inevitably reminds me of what happened at Fukushima in 2011. Some may argue that Japan should have been ready for all sorts of earthquakes because of their location on the ring of fire. But I think that each country has an important decision to make in terms of protecting against unforeseen natural occurrences. Each measure of protection must be extremely expensive, so a line must be drawn. Where does an event cross from improbable to effectively impossible? When does a natural disaster become so unlikely that it is not worth protecting against? The issue of nuclear waste and accidents is complicated because it is particularly expensive to protect against. When does it become “worth it” to take this money away from other uses?

  3. We have talked a lot about controlling nuclear weapons as a way of preventing nuclear winter, but given the possibility of accidental nuclear catastrophes such as Fukushima, perhaps it would be better to approach this problem from the opposite perspective. That is, in addition to the effort to prevent nuclear winter through disarmament, it might also be worthwhile to invest in research towards a way of restricting the spread of soot once a nuclear weapon has been used. As described in several of the readings this week, the spread of soot created from a nuclear explosion is not instantaneous and its effects do not reach a global level until nearly 2 months after the explosion. This leaves a period of time during which it is possible to prevent its further spread. Although not necessarily easy to accomplish, the ability to at least mitigate the spread of soot would be extremely beneficial especially in the case of a limited nuclear situation.

  4. I also saw a parallel with what happened at Fukushima. Both cases seem to justify high expenditures on security surrounding any places with nuclear material, even if they are not weaponized, such as nuclear power plants in Fukushima and simply nuclear waste in Chelyabinsk. International guidelines for security surrounding nuclear materials should be set high to help ensure that countries do invest in the best security possible. Although I agree with Alexandra that it may be hard to quantify risks and make decisions about such funding for any country, each of which is exposed to different natural disasters and threats, I would argue that in order to reap the benefits (nuclear energy) or take on the responsibilities (nuclear waste) of using nuclear materials, countries should be willing to fund a very high degree of security.

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