As reported by French nuclear safety institute (IRSN) on 9th November, a cloud of radioactive pollution has flown over Europe in recent weeks. It originated most likely in late September. The IRSN has measured high levels ruthenium 106, a radioactive nuclide that is the product of splitting atoms in a nuclear reactor and which does not occur naturally. IRSN estimates that the quantity of ruthenium 106 released was major, between 100 and 300 teraBecquerels. There has been no impact on human health or the environment in Europe, the IRSN said. It is not censed in France since 13th October, the IRSN indicates.
The announcement is only the confirmation of first warnings by German, Italian and Austrian authorities issued on 29th September. The German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) issued a more complete statement on 3rd October. French IRSN had also published a first study back then. Its 9th November announcement is the result of an extensive investigation that collects data from over 20 European countries before releasing its data. German BfS pointed to Southern Ural as a likely source of radiation emissions. Russian state nuclear corporation and regulatory body Rosatom denied the claim.
Unlike Uranium or Plutonium, Ruthenium is one of the natural radioactive elements. Some of its isotopes such as Ruthenium-106 are obtained in the process of processing nuclear materials. Its life expectancy is relatively short – just over one year. In comparison, Strontium-90 remains active some 28,8 years; Cesium-137 has a life expectancy of 30 years and Americium-241, some 433 years. According to Russian Doctor in Chemical Science Vadim Maltsev, quoted by bmf.ru, Ruthenium-106 is used for medical purposes, in the building of some micro-chips and other specific devices.
Despite both German and French studies, the geographical origin of the cloud remains uncertain. French experts assess it has originated from an area comprised between the Volga river and the Ural mountains, between the south of Russia and the north of Kazakhstan. The source of the cloud remains a mystery. The IRSN The IRSN ruled out an accident in a nuclear reactor, saying it was likely to be in a nuclear fuel treatment site or centre for radioactive medicine. The hypothesis of a satellite crashing down on Earth is also ruled out.
“Not only the location of the release is unknown, but also release duration, location, height and inventory”, Ivan Kovalets states. A researcher at the “Ukrainian Center of Environmental & Water Projects”, he uses meteorological data to try to geolocate a more precise location of the release area. “Very little data is available and it is impossible to clearly pinpoint a spot without it”. He adds: “some new data is emerging from Russia. Yet it is very slow”. The French IRSN has reported that it was not in contact with Kazakh authorities. As for the Russians, they claim “not to be aware of an accident on their territory”, IRSN director Jean-Marc Peres told Reuters.
In Russia though, several theories have come to light over the past few weeks. Human Rights and Environmental activist Nadezhda Kutepova alleged the source may be the RT-1 reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel, which is a part of the Mayak Production Association. The plant itself is part of the Rosatom corporation. It is located in a closed administrative-territorial formation (ZATO) Ozersk in the Chelyabinsk region. She pointed to some unscheduled tests of sirens and inspection that took place on 24-25th September. The Mayak management did not comment on the allegations. It has to be pointed out that Nadezhda Kutepova has obtained political asylum in France back in April 2016.
Building on Nadezhda Kutepova’s claims, a number of experts confirms an incident at the plant may have caused the release of Ruthenium-106 into the atmosphere. Quoted by bfm.ru, Rashid Alimov, coordinator of the “Toxic Program” project with Greenpeace Russia believes “capsules of Ruthenium-106 could simply have been scrapped and damaged and melted down. Something could happen at the plant where such capsules are prepared”. Olga Kosharna, expert at the Ukrainian Nuclear Forum Association, believes the source may come “from a plant dealing with radiochemical processing”. She also raises the possibility that “a source of ionizing radiation may have hit a metallurgical plant”. None of these experts denies that the radioactive cloud originated from South Ural.
On 20th October, vice-governor of Chelyabinsk region Oleg Klymov denied that anything had happened at Mayak. “If anything has been released from Mayak, Ruthenium-106 would not be the only element released. Nothing has been censed, which means it was not from either Mayak, nor from industrial sites in the region”. According to him, some Ruthenium-106 was indeed detected in South Ural. Yet it was “passing” Ruthenium, that was “harmless”. Oleg Klymkov insisted that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) data showed high concentration of Ruthenium-106 in Romania (154,000 micro-Becquerel), in Italy (54,300 micro-Becquerel), and in Ukraine (40,000 micro-Becquerel). “Yet the level in Chelyabinsk region was zero”, he claims. For Oleg Klymkov, this proves the source of the radiation is “thousands of kilometres from his region”. This is however contradicted by both German, French and Ukrainian studies.
The uncertainty that follows fuels various theories on Internet forums and social networks. Ukrainian energy expert Mikhaylo Honchar goes as far as claiming the source of the Ruthenium-106 was a failed test of an unconventional nuclear weapon. He quotes “one of his sources in Russia” as claiming that a test went wrong “either at one of the nuclear sites or on a military bases”. Mikhaylo Gonchar believes the test was about a “short-lived radioactive generator”, that is to say a new type of unconventional weapon. “It can not be identified as a weapon of mass destruction, unlike conventional nuclear warheads”. Such a hypothesis can not be confirmed, nor it is shared with other experts. Olga Kosharna does not consider it as a possible source of the radioactive cloud.
Whatever the source of the Ruthenium-106 cloud, the French IRSN stated clearly that “if an accident of this magnitude had happened in France, it would have required the evacuation or sheltering of people in a radius of a few kilometres around the accident site”. There has been no sign of evacuation of groups of population neither in Russia nor in Kazakhstan.