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The Mysterious Radioactive Cloud—Why the Ruthenium-106 Story Matters

Energy
Radioactive sampling from the Techa river near the Mayak complex, from July 2017. Greenpeace

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.

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.

Earlier this year, we saw similar denial and disinformation when particulate Iodine-131 was measured all over Europe and IRSN could only conclude the source was "likely situated in Eastern Europe."

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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