Airborne radioactivity increase in Europe in autumn 2017

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Airborne radioactivity was detected in Europe in autumn 2017, starting from the last days of September. The source is widely suspected to be in Russia; the Russian government, however, denies that any nuclear mishaps occurred that could have caused the radiation spike. The radioactive isotope detected was ruthenium-106; across Europe, it was found to be in small quantities (from microbecquerels to a few millibecquerels per cubic metre of air), not significant for the health of the population far away from the source.[1][2][3] It is estimated, however, that the radiation released posed a danger to any employees or residents within several kilometers of the currently unknown source.

Radioactivity detected[edit]

European monitoring networks declared increased radioactivity levels in Europe, coming from Eastern Europe, in the first days of October:

An assessment of the French nuclear safety institute IRSN indicated that while there was no health risk for the vast majority of people in Europe, the radioactive quantity released was significant, estimated from 100 to 300 terabecquerels, which would require an evacuation of people from a radius of several kilometers from the source, as yet then unidentified.[1][2][5] The source of the aforementioned 100–300 TBq activity corresponds approximately to 1–3 grams of the ruthenium-106 isotope.[2]

Possible source[edit]

The 1940s-1950s era and still most common PUREX separation process for uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.[6] Variations of the process has and continues to find applications in many facilities such as La Hague in the manufacture of MOX reactor fuel, were reactor-grade plutonium is reused as fuel and likewise in the extraction of weapons grade plutonium, in the legacy B205 facility in Britain and the Mayak facility in Russia.

While the release of the gaseous noble gas element Krypton-85 is routine during nuclear reprocessing, the noble metal Ruthenium, which is generated in a fission product yield rate of from 0.39% to 3.103% of every fission of a nucleus of uranium or plutonium respectively, is by contrast generally in metallic form, with a high boiling point of 4,150 °C (7,500 °F) in spent fuel. Owing to the ionizing radiation environment of spent fuel and the entry of oxygen, however, radiolysis-reactions can generate the more volatile compound Ruthenium(VIII) oxide, which has a boiling point of approximately 40 °C (104 °F) and is a strong oxidizer, reacting with virtually any fuel/hydrocarbon. The use of a solution of tributyl phosphate in the hydrocarbons kerosene or dodecane, is frequently used as part of the nuclear reprocessing method known as PUREX. Accidental airborne releases of Ru-106 have occurred, through this pathway in the past, such as the British B204 reprocessing incident in 1973, where a number of employees were heavily exposed.[7][8]

With corrosion of the fuel rod-cladding, an issue in the British case, due to the selection of magnesium for the coating on the fuel rods, in the MAGNOX-reactor spent fuel pools, reprocessing needed to occur within a few months at the B205 facility. While most other facilities like the French La Hague, place the spent-fuel in spent fuel pools for about a decade, until the Ru-106, which has a half-life of ~ 1 year, has safely decayed into Rh-106 and finally stable Pd-106. All attempts at PUREX applied to relatively freshly discharged spent-fuel, need to take the presence, oxidative and volatile nature of Ruthenium(VIII) oxide into account.

A nuclear fuel rod assembly bundle being inspected before entering a reactor.

Initially, there was no indication given for the source of these radioactive particles, apart from an October 2017 statement coming from German authorities estimating the source in Eastern Europe, at a distance of more than 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) from Germany.[9] A later report from the German Federal Radiation Protection Service indicated that a location to the South of the Urals was possible (as well as other potential locations). Nonetheless, Roshydromet (the meteorology service of Russia) initially announced that the only location in Russia where ruthenium-106 was detected was St. Petersburg, from September 25 until October 7, in very small quantities.[10] As reported by Roshydromet, Ru-106 activity in St. Petersburg was at 115.4 μBq/m³ from October 2 to 6.[11]

The French Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Security (IRSN) ruled out the emissions as coming from a nuclear reactor, estimating that it should have come either from a nuclear treatment site or from a center producing radioactive medicine. The location where emissions have taken place is estimated south of the Ural mountains, between the Urals and the Volga river, in Russia or Kazakhstan.[5][12]

Roshydromet then issued a report describing a rise in beta activity of aerosols and surfaces at all monitoring posts in South Ural from September 25 to October 1, 2017. In two aerosol samples, an increase in Ru-106 activity was detected. On September 26 and 27, Ru-106 decay products were detected in the Republic of Tatarstan. On September 27 and 28, high pollution levels of aerosols and surfaces was detected in Volgograd and Rostov-on-Don. In two aerosol samples from Chelyabinsk Oblast, 986- and 440-fold activity increases were measured, as compared to the preceding month.[13]

The Mayak nuclear plant is widely suspected as the source of the radiation. Authorities at Mayak and Rosatom, the Russian state company running the nuclear industry, have both denied a link.[3]

On 21 November 2017 Russia reversed itself by confirming that a radiation spike was recorded at two monitoring facilities within a 100-kilometre (62 mi) radius of the Mayak nuclear reprocessing and isotope production plant. Russia, however, continues to deny that the source of the radiation is within Russia, and claims that "the published data is not sufficient to establish the location of the pollution source."[3]

Rosatom initially stated that it had not carried out any operations that could have led to the isotope's release into the atmosphere "for many years". In December 2017, however, senior Mayak executive Yuri Morkov admitted that ruthenium-106 is routinely released as part of the plant's processing of spent nuclear fuel. Morkov characterized the amount released as "insignificant" and denied Mayak was the source of the radiation spike.[14]

Domestic investigation within Russia is hampered by the problem that Mayak is in the walled-off closed city of Ozyorsk, which non-resident Russians are barred from visiting without special permission, and by government harassment of nuclear critics. In Russia prominent nuclear critics experience government raids, are accused on state TV of "exploiting the nuclear issue to foment revolution", and risk criminal prosecution on charges of incitement of hatred against nuclear energy employees.[14]

The Russian Academy of Sciences's Nuclear Safety Institute set up an international committee to investigate the incident.[15] The French Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Security (IRSN) provided a report to the committee in January 2018. The report concluded that the most likely source of the pollution is a spent fuel treatment facility located in a region between Volga and Ural. A possible reason for the release of radioactivity at Mayak PA might be an unsuccessful attempt to produce cerium-144 for the European scientific project Borexino. Mayak PA had agreed to deliver cerium-144 in early 2018, but canceled the contract in December 2017.[15] Mayak PA was the only facility capable of producing cerium-144 from "fresh" spent nuclear fuel 2–3 years old. Usually spent fuel is not processed earlier than five years after extraction. The Ru106/Ru103 ratio in analyzed environmental samples during the pollution spread was characteristic of "fresh" spent fuel.[16] While the non-Russian members of the committee accepted the conclusions of IRSN's report, the Russian members maintain that an inspection by Rostechnadzor of the Mayak PA facility in November 2017 showed no anomalies and a rare meteorological event may have transported the ruthenium-106 from somewhere else to the apparent region of origin.[15]

In 2019 a number of European nuclear scientific research groups published "clear evidence" that the leak originated from Southern Urals, where Mayak plant is located.[17]

Timeline of European detection and public notice[edit]

Similar announcements came from other authorities:[19]


  1. ^ a b c Detection of Ruthenium 106 in France and in Europe: Results of IRSN’s investigations
  2. ^ a b c d Mishandling of spent nuclear fuel in Russia may have caused radioactivity to spread across Europe By Edwin CartlidgeFeb. 14, 2018
  3. ^ a b c Luxmoore, Matthew; Cowell, Alan. "Russia, in Reversal, Confirms Radiation Spike". New York Times. Retrieved November 21, 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d "Detection of ruthenium 106 in the air in the east and south-east parts of Europe". (in French). Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  5. ^ a b Sample, Ian; Willsher, Kim (2017-11-10). "Nuclear accident sends 'harmless' radioactive cloud over Europe". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-11-10.
  6. ^ Greenwood, pp. 1255, 1261
  7. ^ "In 1972, B205 was shut down for one year for repairs, and as a consequence B204 also had to be closed. The pre-handling plant was supposed to reopen on September 26, 1973. When the operators started up the plant, however, a chemical reaction occurred that released a cloud of radioactive gas.The entire plant was contaminated by radiation, and 34 workers were exposed to radioactive ruthenium-106. After that, B204 was never taken into use again."
  8. ^ Sources of anthropogenic radionuclides in the environment: a review
  9. ^ "Spike in airborne radioactivity detected in Europe". Mail Online. Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  10. ^ "Mysterious spike in radioactive particles across Europe baffles scientists". RT International. Retrieved 2017-10-13.
  11. ^ "Никто не хотел признавать... Но рутений-106 летает над Европой". (in Russian). Retrieved 2017-10-14.
  12. ^ (, Deutsche Welle. "Harmless radioactive cloud spread over Europe from Russia or Kazakhstan | News | DW | 10.11.2017". DW.COM. Retrieved 2017-11-10.
  13. ^ Об аварийном, экстремально высоком и высоком загрязнении окружающей среды на территории Российской Федерации в период с 6 по 13 октября 2017 года (Report) (in Russian). Retrieved 2017-11-21.
  14. ^ a b "Critics accuse Russian nuclear authorities of Soviet-style cover-ups and heavy-handed tactics". Newsweek. 21 December 2017. Retrieved 20 January 2018.
  15. ^ a b c Cartlidge, Edwin (14 February 2018). "Mishandling of spent nuclear fuel in Russia may have caused radioactivity to spread across Europe". Science. Science. Retrieved 2018-03-08.
  16. ^ "Une commande franco-italienne à l'origine de la pollution au ruthénium 106?". FIGARO (in French). 2018-02-02. Retrieved 2018-02-05.
  17. ^ "Gigantic, mysterious radiation leak traced to facility in Russia". Retrieved 2019-08-01.
  18. ^ "Small quantities of radioactivity were detected in the atmosphere of Greece and 6 more EU countries". Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  19. ^ "A puzzling increase in radioactivity has been recorded in several European countries". The Independent. 2017-10-10. Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  20. ^ (, Deutsche Welle. "Spike in radioactivity measured in Germany, other European countries | News | DW | 05.10.2017". DW.COM. Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  21. ^ "BfS - Weitere Meldungen - Geringe Mengen Ruthenium-106 in Europa gemessen". (in German). Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  22. ^ Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Authority (3 October 2017). "Helsingissä kerätyssä ilmanäytteessä pieni määrä radioaktiivista ainetta".
  23. ^ "STA: Ruthenium detected in Slovenia". Retrieved 2017-10-10.
  24. ^ "Uprava Republike Slovenije za jedrsko varnost". (in Slovenian). Retrieved 2017-10-10.

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