IAEA: More Mysterious Radionuclides Over Europe

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

A crescendo of official notifications pointing to an anomalous radioactive release across Northern Europe may have precipitated a relatively rapid investigation into the matter by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These notifications climaxed last Friday with Dutch health officials releasing an analysis of elevated readings from four countries and the head of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) tweeting a finding from one of its Swedish monitoring stations. The following day, Jun. 27, IAEA emergency responders issued a letter to member states requesting further information. Norway announced on Jun. 10 that a CTBTO monitoring station in the far northern archipelago of Svalbard had detected "very low levels of radioactive iodine." This attracted little attention because elevated iodine levels are not uncommon and often associated with medical waste. It was Sweden's release on Jun. 23, and Finland's release the next day, that drew media interest as these reported elevated levels of fission products not normally seen, including cesium-134, cesium-137 and ruthenium-103, as well as cobalt-60, which is an "activation" product that could be associated with a release of fission products. On Jun. 26 the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment summed up the small amounts of anthropomorphic radioactive substances detected in the first half of June in the three Nordic countries. The same day CTBTO head Lassina Zerbo tweeted out the recent detection in Sweden of three isotopes "associated [with] Nuclear fission" at "higher ... than usual levels (but not harmful for human health)." Zerbo explained that while his agency is "able to indicate the likely region of the source," it’s "outside the CTBTO’s mandate to identify the exact origin." The next day the IAEA's Incident and Emergency Centre sent a letter to member states asking for information about any "events" in their countries "associated with an atmospheric release" of such isotopes and any measurements showing similar elevated levels. The alacrity of the IAEA's response to a radiological event of minor concern to most health officials and the public was notable considering the IAEA's long-standing reputation for burrowing its head in the sand and saying little or nothing following such events. It's unclear whether Zerbo's statement nudged the IAEA, given the timing of his tweet, the CTBTO's physical proximity to the agency -- both are headquartered in the Vienna International Center -- and Zerbo's recent failed bid to lead the IAEA (NIW Nov.1'19). But during his successful campaign last fall to become the IAEA director general, Rafael Grossi made no secret of his desire to shake things up at the agency and to make it more transparent (NIW Sep.20'19). A spokesperson told Energy Intelligence that the agency had responded similarly after a ruthenium cloud was detected over Europe in 2017 insofar as requesting information from member states and then sharing it among them. However, at the time investigations into the matter were conducted outside the agency's purview and there were complaints that the agency was slow in responding to the issue. The agency's response received high marks from member states and at least partially resulted in the desired results. More than 40 countries replied to the request for information and agreed that their information could be made public, although only three reported elevated readings of the cesium and ruthenium isotopes first reported by Sweden. "Apart from Estonia, Finland and Sweden, none of the other countries which have so far provided information and data to the IAEA said they had detected elevated radioisotope levels," the agency's first public statement on the matter revealed Jun. 30. "From our point of view we think it's a good initiative on the part of the IAEA," Jan Johannson, an official with the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority's emergency preparedness section, told Energy Intelligence. "The IAEA has tried to be proactive." Johannson speculated that the IAEA may have omitted cobalt-60 from its inquiry because it's not a fission product, and said that the iodine readings in Norway might not be related to the subsequent readings in the three other countries. Assuming the requisite permission, the IAEA is sharing the data it receives with its 171 member states via "a secure website available on a 24/7 basis for designated contact points in Member States," the agency said in its release. "The IAEA will continue its efforts to analyze collected information in order to help identify the possible origin and location of the release." 'Another Radioisotope Mystery' So far, however, the culprit in the matter of what one US scientist described in a tweet as "another radioisotope mystery" has still not been identified. Based on a map of the plume provided in Zerbo's tweet and the Dutch reading of the data ("the arrival at the measuring stations took place from a southeast direction," said the Dutch statement), speculation centered on Russia. When it eventually responded, Rosatom reported no excess radiation levels or events at any of its facilities. "Rosatom has notified the IAEA that in June 2020, radiation conditions at industry facilities corresponded to naturally occurring levels, all organizations worked as usual, no deviations from normal operation were recorded," Rosatom said in a Jul. 1 tweet, echoing a more detailed statement by its nuclear generating subsidiary (related). This isn't the first time that Rosatom and its subsidiaries have denied any linkage to radiological events that appear to originate in Russia. Rosatom denied that one of its plants was the source of the 2017 ruthenium cloud detected over much of Europe in September and October 2017, although scientists in Europe and the US were convinced that the company's Mayak reprocessing plant was the source (NIW Apr.2'18). There also remains the mystery of the source of "tiny" amounts of radioactive iodine-131 first detected during the second week of January 2017 in northern Norway and "until the end of January" of that year in Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain, according to a statement at the time by France's radiation safety authority IRSN. Because of iodine-131's eight-day half-life, the IRSN said that "detection of this radionuclide is proof of a rather recent release." More recent still was the unexplained explosion off the coast of northern Russia at a Navy test range in the village of Nyonoksa on Aug. 8, 2019 (NIW Aug.16'19). Scientists speculated that it was a reactor accident, possibly involving a nuclear-powered cruise missile. The incident killed five Rosatom engineers, either directly from the explosion or radiation sickness, and sent local medical staff who treated the injured workers to a special facility in Moscow to be treated for radiation sickness. Stephanie Cooke, Washington

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