The picture about why at the end of September, early October 2017 many radiation monitoring stations in Europe measured the man-made isotope ruthenium-106 (Ru-106) in the atmosphere is more or less clear. It looks like a botched attempt to produce cerium-144 from fresh spent nuclear fuel at the Mayak complex in the Southern Urals in Russia resulted in emissions of ruthenium-oxide crystals into the atmosphere.
We know that Rosatom's Mayak complex was the only bidder in a tender for this material for an Italian-French research project under EU funding, we know it cancelled that tender late last year for unknown reasons, we know that some of the better-equipped measurement stations also measured the shorter-lived ruthenium-103, and we know that weather patterns point to the Southern Urals as most likely point of origin.1
The only thing missing is a confirmation from Rosatom itself. That we know so much is thanks to the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, the French nuclear technical support organisation IRSN, the German Bundesanstalt für Strahlenschutz (BfS) and the Swedish, Finish and Norwegian nuclear safety regulators. That we know so little is due to a wave of misinformation and a refusal to publish the international measurements gathered by the IAEA.
On 13 October 2017, the IAEA confidentially shared with its member states a list of strange measurements of Ru-106 all over the European continent. Two institutes, the French IRSN and the German BfS, came to the conclusion that the source must have been a large emission of 100 to 300 TBq (1 to 4 grams) of the isotope from a source in the Southern Urals or Kazakhstan. No institute or nuclear operator informed the IAEA of an incident or accident.
What is also surprising is that only ruthenium was measured, no other substances. This excludes issues like power reactor accidents or the re-entrance of a radiation-battery-powered satellite into the atmosphere. The sheer amount excludes a release of a medical source. By the end of the year, it became clear that the more sophisticated measurement stations had also detected Ru-103, a shorter-lived isotope of ruthenium. The Ru-106/Ru-103 ratio was around 4000 to 1. This means that the only source can be relatively fresh spent nuclear fuel that is not longer than two years out of the reactor.
In the meantime, a Russian human rights lawyer in exile in France, Nadezhda Kutepova, found out with the help of French experts and journalists that the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in L'Aquila, Italy, in an EU Research Council funded set-up with French CEA, had tendered for the delivery of a Ce-144 source ‒ a tender won by the only bidder, Rosatom's Mayak. IRSN came to the conclusion that the production of this source could explain the use of fresh spent fuel. In December 2017, Mayak canceled its contract – it was not able to successfully produce the source.2
The Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Science organised on 31 January 2018 a meeting with an international commission consisting of experts from IRSN, BfS and the Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish nuclear regulators STUK, Strålevern and SSM. This commission came after four months of confusion to a surprisingly clear consensus about all factors playing a role and agreed that the hypothesis that the ruthenium may have escaped during a failure in the production of cerium-144 at the Mayak facility is a reasonable one. The only open factor, however, remains conclusion 9: "The Commission noted that the Rostechnadzor inspections were conducted at the PO "Mayak" and NIIAR (Dimitrovgrad) facilities covering the operations during the period August – November 2017, and no deviations from normal technological processes were found." A new meeting is scheduled for 11 April 2018 in Moscow.3
Misinformation, diversion and surprising facts
From the moment that IRSN and BfS arrived at their independent conclusions that the source is probably to be found in the Southern Urals, Rosatom and Mayak denied any involvement and different Russian commentators started pointing fingers into other directions. Maksim Shingarkin, a former member of the Duma's environment committee, claims the ruthenium came from a spy satellite returning into the atmosphere. In December, suddenly a tender was awarded by Mayak to clean up the area around factory #235, a newly renovated facility for reprocessing, allegedly to clean up fall-out from the 1957 Kyshtym catastrophe.
Around the same time, I received questions for comment from two young independent Russian and Ukrainian journalists, suggesting that the ruthenium might have come from Romania, where the highest concentrations were measured, or from Ukraine. The Ukraine story persists despite contrary evidence. On 26 September 2017, an ammunition depot at Kalynivka near Vinnytisia exploded and up to today, blogpost after tweet after blogpost tries to locate the source of ruthenium-106 there.
Rosatom so far continues with denial and diversion, among others by stating it did not produce Ru-106 from spent fuel for years already4 and continuing to stress that the concentrations measured posed no risk to health. It even went as far as starting a Twitter and Facebook campaign with a cartoon character in the form of a clump of ruthenium asking "what have I done to you?"5 Its close news outlet geoenergetics.ru leaked on 19 October 2017 a copy of the confidential list from the IAEA with measurement data of ruthenium-106, and tried to ridicule the findings from BfS.6
Public prosecutor investigations
Greenpeace Russia turned in November to the public prosecutor for an independent investigation. After a long silence, the prosecutor's office said in January that it saw no priority for this case because Russia's authorised bodies (e.g. Rostechnadzor) did not register any incidents and that the concentrations measured "are so low that they do not pose a health risk". The open question is whether this will change on the basis of the findings of the international commission and the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Science.
Access to information and the IAEA
The publication of the list from the IAEA of the Ru-106 measurement data on geoenergetics.ru came as a bit of surprise. The website is very close to Rosatom, and it is unlikely the leak happened without its approval. In order to verify if the two documents published were indeed genuine and not tampered with, WISE and Nuclear Transparency Watch turned to the IAEA. The IAEA refuses to confirm or deny authenticity because the document is confidential. It only describes how it got the data from the member states and that the concentrations are no threat to human health.
Then, WISE turned to the Dutch nuclear regulator ANVS with a request for verification and a copy. It appears that the IAEA made two updates in the meantime, and now also includes data from Roshydromet, the Russian meteorological authority, and from Kazakhstan. However, ANVS also refused verification or access because this could cause international tensions. WISE appealed the verdict, arguing that with the exception of information from Turkey and Russia, all delivered data came from parties to the Aarhus Convention and for that reason should be public – and the Russian data obviously were leaked by Russian authorities themselves already. WISE is still waiting on the outcome of the appeal.
It first has to be stated clearly that the measured concentrations of ruthenium are so low that they do not pose a health risk. IRSN, however, remarks that the concentrations near the source were probably high enough to warrant protective measures for several kilometres around. Greenpeace, WISE and others received concerned questions from people around Mayak, and therefore full transparency should be the default.
It is clear that – like in the case of denial around the Kyshtym catastrophe in 1957, Chernobyl and also later cases of contamination in Mayak – Rosatom still cannot be trusted in cases of incidents. What is new, is that this is exacerbated by the appearance of fake-news over social media in a clear attempt to divert attention away from the problem. The IAEA system of information further obscures the process of getting clarity because it lacks a proper transparency policy, for instance one based on the principles of the Aarhus Convention. That the situation has not become worse is because more courageous organisations, or maybe one should say, more transparent organisations like IRNS and BfS try to give as much clarity as the law offers them. But also they have to stop at certain limits, as the conclusions from the Moscow meeting of the international commission shows.
This is, first of all, a problem because there may have been some workers and surrounding inhabitants contaminated that may need now or in the future some kind of support. But as problematic is the fact that if this system repeats itself in the case of a more serious accident, we will not have time to wade through a swamp of hoaxes, diversion and false denials. In case of nuclear accidents, transparency should be number one. Fast and clear access to data is vital. It is the policies of IRSN, BfS and the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Science that should form the basis, but the limitations they are facing should be removed. Only in that way can we prevent the worst when facing serious nuclear incidents.
Jan Haverkamp is expert consultant on nuclear energy for WISE, Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe and is vice-chair of Nuclear Transparency Watch. He has written this article in a personal capacity.
1. IRSN, Report on the IRSN's investigations following the widespread detection of Ruthenium 106 in Europe early October 2017, January 2018, and Detection in October 2017 of Ruthenium 106 in France and in Europe: Results of IRSN's investigations ‒ Update of information report of November 9, 2017, Paris (2018); www.irsn.fr/EN/newsroom/News/Pages/20180206_Detection-in-October-2017-of...
2. Science, 14 Feb 2018, Edwin Cartlidge, 'Mishandling of spent nuclear fuel in Russia may have caused radioactivity to spread across Europe', www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/mishandling-spent-nuclear-fuel-russia-ma...
3. IBRAE, Meeting of the International Independent Scientific Commission for investigation of Ru-106 case, Moscow (1 Feb 2018); http://en.ibrae.ac.ru/newstext/885/
4. See for instance https://sputniknews.com/world/201711211059286494-rosatom-ruthenium-spike/