A Strange Radioactive Cloud Likely Came From Russia

A Strange Radioactive Cloud Likely Came From Russia
August 19 10:45 2019 Print This Article

WIRED – Meredith Fore, 15 August 2019 –  ON OCTOBER 2, 2017, scientists from an Italian laboratory issued an alert: They had detected radioactive ruthenium-106 in the air in Milan.

It was not enough to be dangerous, but it was certainly not natural. Other laboratories in the informal Ring of Five network of European nuclear monitoring stations soon confirmed similar observations in Austria, Norway, and the Czech Republic. Within a few days, more than two dozen countries in Europe had confirmed the detections of the radioactive compound.

Ruthenium is a transition metal, similar to platinum, that is used in electronics, solar cells, and some jewelry. The last time anyone had detected the radioactive isotope ruthenium-106 in the atmosphere was after the Chernobyl disaster. It is a byproduct of the fission of uranium-235, a common nuclear fuel. Detecting it was a near-definite indication of a nuclear accident.

The French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, known as IRSN, quickly determined in an investigation that the plume of ruthenium had originated in the southern Ural Mountains, in Russia, through the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. In that area of the world, there is only one nuclear reprocessing plant: the Russian facility Mayak. The Russian state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, has denied in multiple statements that any such release of nuclear material occurred. A new study, however, seems to have definitively established Mayak as the origin of the ruthenium-106.

“For the very first time, all the European monitoring stations, they are now speaking with one voice, and they’re putting all the data together,” says Georg Steinhauser of the University of Hannover in Germany, one of the main researchers on the study. The study itself had 69 authors from 50 institutions. “The picture is much clearer now.”

A novel finding in the study is the young age of the original fuel. Spent fuel, when initially taken from a nuclear reactor, is dangerously radioactive. According to Steinhauser, the policy in France is to let spent fuel sit for four years before trying to reprocess it; in Russia, the policy is three years. Steinhauser and his team found that the spent fuel was “incredibly” young, only between 1.5 to 2 years old.

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