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Ruthenium-106: Whose Radiation Drifts Over Europe?

In recent days, Western media was literally choked by information that from the end of September in almost all European countries was detected radiation of unknown origin. Several radio-logic stations in Europe recorded an increased level of the isotope ruthenium-106. This element is artificial, and usually it does not occur naturally, so it should appear man-made in the air.

The first alarm sounded from Germany, France, Italy, Norway, and Switzerland. According to Western media, the concentration of ruthenium in Germany was about 5 milli becquerels per cubic meter of air. According to the French Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety, such an insignificant concentration of this radioisotope is thousands of times lower than the level that may cause diseases related with radiation, so it doesn’t pose risk to the human health and environment. In fact, it’s not a thousand times lower, but only a hundred times, since the maximum allowable concentration is 500 milli becquerels per cubic meter.

According to International Atomic Energy Agency report from October 13, the highest concentration of  ruthenium-106 was recorded in Romania on September 30 (about 145 MBq/m3). These results are based on the collection of measurements in 36 countries across Europe, from the end of September to early October.

The question of whence the radionuclide appeared in western European countries is still open. The German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) together with the French scientists with the help of wind monitoring, created a map of the alleged movement of radioactive ruthenium. Spokesman of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection Jan Henrik Lauer told reporters that the source of pollution is at a distance of “at least 1,000 kilometers to the east of Germany.”

It was also said in the official German statement that “the cause of the newly identified increase in the radioactive level of ruthenium-106 in Germany has not yet been established. However, with a high degree of probability it can be argued that the source of this anomaly is located to the south of the Urals. Other regions of Southern Russia should also be taken into account. The level of radiation in Germany remains absolutely harmless for the population.”

Meanwhile, in the foreign press for several weeks, constantly were put forward a variety of hypotheses about the source of ruthenium. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind to any person, who is interested in topics connected with radiation, is an accident at the nuclear power plant. This was also written in newspapers and broadcast on radio and television in different European countries. Many have sinned against the Belarusian nuclear power plant which is currently being built by the Russian state energy corporation Rosatom, or the Ukrainian nuclear power plants, which are now underway to transfer from “native” fuel to fuel of American manufacturing company “Westinghouse”. In the media from time to time appear messages about unexpected failures and emergency shutdowns of several power units of different Ukrainian nuclear power plants.

Later many media sources gave up the idea of the nuclear reactor accident, as this would led to the release of other fission products, primarily radioactive iodine, cesium, and strontium. But none of those elements were detected. Only now, for example, more than 30 years after the accident in Chernobyl, the half-life of radioactive cesium ended. And that is just half-life. It will stay for another 270 years until its complete disintegration. And strontium-90 also tends to stay on the ground for centuries. That means that the version of the horror story with an accident at a certain nuclear power plant is simply not realistic.

It was also suggested that someone – perhaps Russia, Ukraine, or even Romania, is carrying out secret tests of nuclear weapons. Not only Russia, but any other country, including Ukraine, where radicals have long called for the creation of their own nuclear bomb, of course, can do this – especially with the current disregard of international treaties and international laws.

However, the version with nuclear weapon tests is also incorrect. While providing nuclear weapons testing radioactive ruthenium can be released, but it would spew a bouquet of many different isotopes, not just the one.

Ruthenium continues to cause panic in Europe, while the origin of the radiation is still unknown.  This isn’t the first time radiation of unknown source made its way across Europe. Scientists were also vexed when radioactive iodine spread over the continent in January of this year. And this was much more serious, since primarily radioactive iodine, falls out after accidents at nuclear power plants. The increased concentration of iodine was recorded at that time by the Norwegian research station Svanhovd, then in Rovaniemi in northern Finland, and further in small amounts in other countries across Europe – Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, France and Spain.

Then, a headline from The Independent, informed about a ‘nuclear sniffer’ plane that has been sent to monitor radioactivity levels in Europe following the detection of mysterious spikes of radiation across the continent. However, the exact place of leakage of radioactive iodine wasn’t found – only it became known that it has happen somewhere in the area of Eastern Europe. Later, it was suggested that radioactive iodine had medical origin, and so most likely the leak came from a pharmaceutical company that hasn’t reported it to authorities.

A similar story emerged even earlier, six years ago. Then, in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Austria and Poland, was also detected an excessive concentration of radioactive iodine-131. As a result, it turned out that the source was in Hungary. The local Institute of Isotopes produced radioactive isotopes for medical and industrial purposes and made a number of errors in the control of technological processes.

In all likelihood, when French and German radiation safety officials last month identified the Southern Urals region as the likely source of a cloud of a radioactive ruthenium-106, they mean the Mayak nuclear reprocessing plant, run by Rosatom, near the closed town called Ozersk but known as Chelyabinsk-40.

A string of official denials from local authorities and scientists followed. The press offices of several Russian nuclear plants issued statements denying any accidents or leaks and asserting that they had detected no elevated levels of ruthenium 106 in the air.

Then this month, the statements of Russian authorities suddenly shifted. The agency responsible for monitoring radiation in Russia, Roshydromet, said it had in fact found in late September through mid-October what it called “extremely high” levels of ruthenium-106 at two monitoring sites near Myak. Still, officials at Mayak denied in interviews with the newspaper Kommersant that the plant was the source of the leak. And it seems to be true, because in the result of incorrect handling of spent nuclear fuel, not only ruthenium-106 would appear, but that would definitely have led to contamination with other radionuclides too.

In the end, the most likely hypothesis of the source of radioactive ruthenium-106 in the air of Europe is associated with its medical use. Because of its short half-life of about a year, ruthenium-106 is used in nuclear medicine – for example in cancer therapy for eye tumours. But although it looks like a logical source for this release, the lack of data do not yet exclude all other possible sources of ruthenium.

While many news agencies assuring us that the cloud is “harmless” — that  radiation levels are low and that no effects on human health have been observed — radiation experts tell the scene may not be so peachy at at the place where the release occurred.

At the same time, according to Greenpeace Russia, tens of millions of people can be affected even with such small concentration of radioactive isotope, and some of them later may increase the risk of many health problems. Lack of sufficient information – isn’t a reason to calm down. Greenpeace Russia has sent a petition to the public prosecutor with request to investigate “a possible concealment of a radiation incident.” Meanwhile, everybody continue to make guesses, as without confirmation of an incident or accident, true story of the origin of the ruthenium-106 may never be known.

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