In 2017, a vast cloud of nuclear radiation spread over a good part of continental Europe. Its source was never truly known – until now!
An international team of scientists have now traced the cloud to a previously undisclosed nuclear accident in southern Russia.
The nuclear experts say that the cloud of radiation detected over Europe in late September 2017 could only have been caused by a nuclear fuel-reprocessing accident at the Mayak Production Association, a nuclear facility in the Chelyabinsk region of the Ural Mountains in Russia. The scientists say the accidental venting of gas had to have occurred sometime between noon on Sept. 26 and noon on Sept. 27.
At the time, Russia confirmed that a cloud of nuclear radiation was detected over the Urals, just as it was later over Europe, but the country never took any responsibility for a radiation leak, and if a nuclear accident indeed took place at Mayak in 2017, as the scientists deduced, then the Russians covered it up.
According to a report in “Live Science,” the lead scientist on the team, nuclear chemist Georg Steinhauser of Leibniz University in Hanover, Germany, said that “more than 1,300 atmospheric measurements from around the world showed that between 250 and 400 terabecquerels of radioactive ruthenium-106 had been released during that time.”
Worse Than Fukushima
Ruthenium-106 is a radioactive isotope of ruthenium, meaning that it has a different number of neutrons in its nucleus than the naturally occurring element has. The isotope can be produced as a byproduct during nuclear fission of uranium-235 atoms.
Although the resulting cloud of nuclear radiation was diluted enough that it caused no harm to the people beneath it, the total radioactivity was between 30 and 100 times the level of radiation released after the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011, Steinhauser told Live Science.
Steinhauser and his team concluded that the radioactive cloud had to have come from the Russian nuclear plant, because of the high amount of Ruthenium-106 within it.
“During the reprocessing of nuclear fuel — when radioactive plutonium and uranium are separated from spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power reactors — ruthenium-106 is typically separated out and placed into long-term storage with other radioactive waste byproducts,” he said.
That meant that any massive release of ruthenium could only come from an accident during nuclear fuel reprocessing; and the Mayak facility was one of only a few places in the world that carries out that sort of reprocessing, the chemist explained, and in close enough proximity, for an accidental release of the chemical cloud to drift to Europe.
His report, which was published in a recent edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, went on to say that, “advanced meteorological studies made as part of this new research showed that the radiation cloud could only have come from the Mayak facility in Russia. They have done a very thorough analysis and they have pinned down Mayak — there is no doubt about it,” Steinhauser said.
The researchers concluded that the cloud was caused by a leak, or simple release of radioactive gas, and not by a fire, or an explosion at the plant, which the Russians would have had a harder time hiding.
Despite the evidence in the report, Russia has not acknowledged that any accident occurred at the Mayak facility, maybe because plutonium is made there for thermonuclear weapons program.