The Mysterious Radioactive Cloud—Why the Ruthenium-106 Story Matters
By Jan Haverkamp and Andrey Allakhverdov
A week ago, the Russian meteorological service, Roshydromet, reacted to a month-long standing request for information from Greenpeace. It triggered extraordinary interest among journalists world-wide in a rather unknown bit of nuclear physics: the radioactive substance ruthenium-106.
For weeks, two Russian state-run bodies, Rosatom and Roshydromet, made statements negating or misinterpreting each other's information and the data coming from French and German sources. The International Atomic Energy Agency—the UN body in which all nuclear states are supposed to cooperate—did not give any clarity, and only a Russian energy propaganda site leaked what looks like the IAEA's measurement data. The Russian disinformation services were working overtime over social and even official media, making denial statements and sometimes pointing the finger to France and the Ukraine. In other words, there is no reliable information on where the cloud of this rare man-made radioactive substance came from.
The only thing that is clear, is that at its source there must have been a lot of it—sufficient, according to the French nuclear research institute IRSN, to activate precautionary measures for some kilometers around. The scary thing is that we still don't know what caused it. Speculation abounds: medical waste burned in an incinerator? Or an incident in the recently started new vitrification plant in the nuclear reprocessing facility, Mayak, or like in 2001 in a similar installation in France? We know it was no satellite and no nuclear power plant.
Don't Worry, Europe, Radioactive Cloud Likely From Russian #Nuclear Plant Accident Deemed 'Harmless'… https://t.co/bdOwVuWOwl— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1510347236.0
The Russian nuclear giant Rosatom has a legacy of denying accidents at nuclear facilities and radiation pollution: The explosion at Mayak (also known as the Kyshtym disaster) in 1957 and continuous contamination of the area in the South Urals; the Chernobyl catastrophe that was denied in the first days, and the effects of which last until today; the 1993 explosion at the Siberian Chemical Combine where, among other isotopes, the same ruthenium-106 was released into the atmosphere and about 2,000 people were contaminated. The emergency situation in 2007 at Mayak resulted in the radioactive contamination of water; and many other incidents. In these cases, the event was immediately denied, then later reluctantly admitted after denial had become impossible.
Rosatom is building, or is planning to build, nuclear power plants in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. It boasts a portfolio worth some $133 billion. We need a high level of safety culture: full transparency, immediate cooperation with regulatory authorities, the IAEA, international partners and competitors, whistleblower protection, and attention and care for the potential victims.
Rosatom has done nothing to demonstrate it is a responsible actor. No early and constructive publication of measurement data, no constructive analysis of what the source could be. Only denial, diversion of attention and shooting at the messenger. In order to get more clarity, Greenpeace saw no other possibility than to request an investigation from the public prosecutor. The fact that the source of this ruthenium-106 emission remains a mystery is a reason for concern in itself. But the fact that Rosatom, one of the largest nuclear operators in the world, reacts as it did makes it really scary.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.
By Jewel Fraser
Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.