Above: The map released by IRSN on Nov. 9, 2017. Please note that it does not show the extent of the Ru-106 plume itself, but the likelihood that any of the grid points is the origin of the release.
Updated Nov. 17, 2017, with information regarding a closed IAEA assessment made in mid-October, which was helpfully pointed out to us by a reader.
Updated Nov. 20, 2017, with information regarding the analysis released in mid-October by the Czech National Radiation Protection Institute (SURO) in collaboration with the Institute of Information Theory and Automation (UTIA); also a theory that the release may have originated at Dimitrovgrad.
Several days have passed since news articles appeared which summarized the findings of IRSN (Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire, the French national radiation laboratory) regarding a sizable plume of radioactive Ruthenium 106 which was detected wafting over Europe in September and October 2017, peaking between Oct 2-3 and decreasing after that. Ru-106, which has a half-life of about one year, is used in cancer treatment for eye tumors, for powering orbital satellites, and can be released during nuclear fuel reprocessing. It was the only radionuclide from this incident detected by European laboratories, which rules out a nuclear reactor accident.
Although the detections had been quickly reported by the relevant agencies of several European countries within the first week of October, and a number of articles about it appeared in the mass media at the same time, the event largely escaped public notice until IRSN’s report last week, which included an alarming map (above). IRSN, as well as Germany’s BfS (Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz/ Federal Office for Radiation Protection), which has also conscientiously reported the results of its measurements since October, both gave assurance that the radiation levels detected in those countries were extremely low. In France, the concentrations were thousands of times lower than natural background, and only detectable after IRSN significantly increased the measurement time of its air filter system to increase its sensitivity. In Germany, BfS reported that constant inhalation for an entire week of the highest Ru-106 concentrations measured there would give a dose lower than one hour of normal natural background radiation. In most of the 28 countries that reported detecting the cloud, the radioactive concentrations never exceeded trace levels, and no experts expected health detriment or contamination of the food supply to occur. End of problem, right?
Wrong. Both IRSN and BfS presented analyses which convincingly pointed to either Southern Russia or Kazakhstan as the source of the release. IRSN went as far as to say that because of the size of the release — estimated at between 100 and 300 terabecquerels, roughly 1/100th of what was released to the atmosphere by the Fukushima accident — if the accident had happened in France, shelter or evacuation orders would have been issued for residents within a radius of a few kilometers of the release site, and protective measures would have been implemented for food. But both Russia and Kazakhstan have denied that any accident happened within their borders. The Russian state-owned nuclear conglomerate Rosatom has been particularly aggressive in its public denials, repeatedly insisting that radiation levels in Russia have been normal the entire time.
To date neither Russia nor Kazakhstan has released radiation monitoring results. Russia provided a handful of monitoring results to the IAEA in October, while Kazakhstan did not (they have plausibly stated elsewhere that they lack the technical ability to measure Ru-106). The IAEA weighed in publicly to say that it was almost certainly not from a Ru-106 powered satellite breaking apart on re-entry as Russia has suggested, but to date has not yet issued any other statements about the incident. and issued a two-part report on Oct. 13 through the closed USIE system (Unified System for Information Exchange in Incidents and Emergencies), which is intended for official use only and is not openly accessible. More about this below.
Observers have noted that the cold-war era Mayak nuclear reprocessing plant, site of the serious Kyshtym nuclear accident in 1957 and a litany of others since then, lies within the estimated area of release, which puts it high on the list of possible culprits. But the data collected outside of the region is insufficient to conclusively pinpoint the source. On Nov. 17, NPR quoted experts who suggested that the Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (RIAR) in Dimitrovgrad, west of the Ural Mountains not far from Mayak, could be the source. Wherever it happened, alarms were almost certainly going off and workers headed for the decontamination centers. But no-one, neither a government regulator, nor a nuclear facility operator, nor a whistleblower, has yet come forward to own up to the accident.
The Oct. 13 IAEA reports were leaked online on Oct 19 by the Russian energy industry blog Geoenergetics, accompanying a long article which ridicules the statements from IRSN and BfS, and also the notion that Mayak may be implicated. In their conclusion, they claim that IAEA report exonerates Russia from any culpability. In fact it does not.
The IAEA report notes the detections and requests for information from member states, and that it put out a call for monitoring data, ultimately receiving reports from 36 countries. Data was reported for six measurement points in Russia, about 14 in Ukraine, but none in Kazakhstan. It notes that the Ru-106 concentrations in Europe were in the range of tens of μBq/m3 to tens of mBq/m3, with very low radiological significance and no risk to human health. The highest reported measurement was 145 mBq/m3, from a 24-hour sample taken in Bucharest, Romania, on Sept. 30, 2017. A useful map is included, which shows that concentrations were higher in Romania than anywhere else reported, but also shows a glaring lack of data from the areas of Russia that IRSN would identify a month later as the most likely areas of origin. One data point for Yekaterinburg, not far from Mayak, taken on Oct 1 is provided. It shows no Ru-106 detected.
The report’s final statement does not exonerate Russia, however; rather, it pointedly says that until the responsible parties step forward, it will be impossible to determine the origin of the release:
“Based on the monitoring data and the information provided by the Member States to the IAEA, no specific event or location for the dispersal of Ru-106 into the atmosphere have been determined. It is currently not possible for the IAEA to make conclusions towards identifying a location of the release without factual reporting from a State of the origin of the release.”
A report released by the Czech National Radiation Protection Institute (SURO) on Oct. 11 (and continually updated) which includes a map visualization developed in collaboration with the Czech Institute of Information Theory and Automation (UTIA), essentially concurred with IRSN and BfS. The map shows the release likely came from within Russian territory. The report also says, “Without any further information (especially Russian measurements), it is not possible to determine the exact destination.”
What we are not seeing publicly is the behind the scenes tussle that is certainly occurring at the IAEA and within the international nuclear regulation community. But we should all take note of how this plays out because it is an important indicator of the overall health of the post-Fukushima international radiation accident response regime. Despite the existence of numerous international agreements about how radiation incidents should be reported, how quickly, and to whom, each country has its own nuclear regulators with varying degrees of independence, authority, and competence. The Fukushima disaster revealed a dangerous degree of regulatory capture in Japan, which hampered the implementation of better safety measures prior to the March 2011 accident and hobbled the initial response. Despite the highly publicized global hand-wringing and “lessons learned” in the nuclear community after that accident, improvements in safety and response have been implemented in a fragmentary way in most countries, and in some, not at all. In countries governed by authoritarian regimes, we suspect it would be distressingly easy for government to clamp down on any embarrassing news about a nuclear accident. Both Russia and Kazakhstan fit this bill.
This situation reminds us that in the case of nuclear weapons proliferation, the IAEA is backed up by the UN Security Council, which can impose real consequences for noncompliance, but in the nuclear energy sphere it operates essentially on the honor system. When an accidental release like this Ru-106 happens at a nuclear facility, its operator, by prior agreement, is obliged to report it immediately to its national regulator or other official bodies, which then reports it to the IAEA via UN diplomatic channels. The IAEA can then notify the rest of the world. That this system broke during the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster has been well documented, by the IAEA itself as well as by the Japanese Diet and TEPCO. The Soviet attempt at coverup was even worse following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The fact that a significant plume of Ru-106 was released and over a month later no-one has been compelled to take responsibility for it highlights the risks of depending on the honor system for reporting nuclear accidents.
The most informative publicly available text so far about the incident is the one released by IRSN on Nov 10, 2017 :
IRSN: Detection of ruthenium 106 in France and in Europe: Results of IRSN’s investigations
These mainstream news articles are accurate and informative:
Sept 29, 2017: The radioactive cloud is detected by several radiation monitoring stations in Europe; analysis of the findings take several days and reports come after that.
Oct 3, 2017: The Austrian Ministry of the Environment and the Norwegian Nuclear Safety Authority report the detection of small quantities of Ru-106 in the atmosphere.
Oct 4, 2017: IRSN issues its first statement, saying it is working to detect the release.
Oct 4, 2017 and updated: Germany’s BfS reports the Austrian detections and also reports that a trace monitoring station in Germany recorded low amounts of Ru-106 on Oct 4, while a National Meteorological Service monitoring station in Saxony detected traces on a sample collected between Sept 25 – Oct 2, 2017.
Oct 4, 2017: French newspaper Le Figaro reports IRSN’s findings so far, noting that traces of Ru-106 had been found in Norway, Switzerland and Austria, and that IRSN had not yet detected the plume but was extending the sampling times on its filters in order to have a greater volume of air analyzed to increase the possibility of detection. Figaro notes that because of the very low levels detected, IRSN believes there is no danger to human health.
October 5, 2017: Other news sites, such as PhysOrg, note the BfS report, and quote a BfS spokesman as saying that calculations indicate it may have been released in eastern Europe.
Oct 8, 2017: BfS reports that its analysis points to the southern Urals as the likely origin of the release, although other areas south of that are possible. They rule out a nuclear powerplant accident. They note that the levels of Ru-106 measured are every low, the highest concentration measured in Görlitz being about 5 Millibecquerels per cubic metre of air. “Assuming constant inhalation of this activity concentration for the period of one week would result in a dose being lower than the dose within one hour due to the natural radiation background. The measurements at the other stations (Arkona/Rügen, Greifswald, Angermünde, Cottbus, and Fürstenzell/Bavaria) are even lower.” They go on to state:
“Considering that Russia must be assumed to be the region of origin of radioactive release, the Federal Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (Bundesumweltministerium, BMUB) expects responsible Russian authorities, and IAEA, to provide robust information as soon as possible in order to help clarify the causes of the increased ruthenium readings.”
Oct 8, 2017: Le Figaro publishes another article about the plume. They note the low levels reported by BfS, and add that the levels detected by the IRSN station at Seyne-sur-Mer are more than a thousand times lower than in Germany: 7.7 micro- Bq / m3. They say that IRSN and BfS have determined that the releases originated south of the Urals in Russia, but that Russian authorities have not yet commented on the incident.
Oct 9, 2017: IRSN issues an update saying that the releases appear to have originated in the southern regions of the Urals, and that the quantities detected suggest that the populations near the releases should be protected. They note that they are in close communication with BfS in Germany, which has independently reached similar conclusions. They are unable to confirm that the releases have ended at this point. This report includes a useful table of measurements by French stations.
Oct 10, 2017: Russian state media outlet RT reports that although BfS analyses point to the southern Urals, Rosatom claims that “the radiation situation around all Russian nuclear facilities is within the norm and corresponds to natural background radiation.” Rosatom strongly denies that the incident occurred in Russia. RT adds that Russia’s meteorology service Roshydromet detected Ru-106 in St. Petersburg but nowhere else in Russia, and the levels detected were four times lower than allowed and “insignificant.”
Oct 11, 2017: RT and RIA Novosti continue to try to discredit the data from IRSN and DfS, reporting that Rosatom called their reports “unfounded” and insisting that “the radiation situation around all the facilities of Russia’s atomic industry remains within norms and corresponds to natural radiation level.”
Oct 13, 2017: The IAEA issues a two-part report through the USIE portal, not publicly accessible (links to leaked version above). Based on past policy, we can expect these to eventually be published openly after a mandated review period.
Oct 19, 2017: Russian energy industry blog Geoenergetics publishes a lengthy article which attempts to discredit IRSN and BfS, and claims that the IAEA has exonerated Russia.
Oct 22 2017: Le Figaro reports that a month after the first detections of Ru-106 by several Western nuclear security authorities, pointing to Russia as the origin, Moscow continues to try to discredit their reports unconvincingly. Rosatom again insists that “facilities of the nuclear industry in Russia can not be considered a source of discharges,” and that they have seen no evidence of violations anywhere within their jurisdiction.
Nov 9, 2017: IRSN releases its 4-page report on the incident, mentioned above.
Nov 10, 2017: Le Figaro notes the Russian “counterattack” against the conclusions of the other European countries, and points out that the cause remains a mystery. They suggest that likely causes include an accidental degassing of a solution containing ruthenium resulting from the reprocessing of nuclear fuels, or ruthenium radioactive sources (used to irradiate certain tumors) that could have been lost and accidentally burned in an incinerator. They note that Russian authorities prefer the theory of the fall and disintegration into the atmosphere of a satellite with a ruthenium-powered electricity generator, but note that IRSN experts have investigated this possibility and consider it unfounded.
Nov 10, 2017: Other international news media carry the story, as mentioned above.
Nov 10, 2017: Radio Free Europe reports that representatives of Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Physics Institute said there had been no nuclear leaks detected in Kazakhstan in September and October. Officials at the Kazakh Institute of Radiation Security and Ecology in Kurchatov (center of the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Polygon) said that Kazakhstan does not have facilities that could accidentally release ruthenium to the atmosphere.
While the actual Ru-106 release incident is long past, the repercussions of the failure of those responsible at the site of the accident and the official bodies overseeing them to accurately report its cause and to inform the global community of the remediary actions taken are certain to continue to play our over the coming months.