European officials are past week.” Where the spike in radiation comes from and what spewed it into the atmosphere is a much weirder mystery that has scientists around the world totally baffled.the public not to the discovery of low-level traces of radioactive ruthenium-106 particles that have been drifting across the continent. Germany’s Office for Radiation Protection (GORP) issued a statement on Wednesday reporting, “increased radioactivity in parts of central and western Europe over the
Sensitive measuring instruments spread across Europe detect the smallest traces of radioactive isotopes. Units located in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland picked up the ruthenium-106 but experts promise the levels detected are not a threat to human health. “Theof the isotope discovered were 17,000 times lower than the limit of air emissions set for this radionuclide in the Radiation Protection Ordinance,” assures the Swiss office of France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Security (IRSN).
Tracking the source of the contamination leads experts to conclude, “new analyses of the source of the radioactive material are likely to indicate a release in the southern Ural but other regions in Southern Russia cannot be excluded,” GORP reports.
Russia swears up and down they have nothing to do with it. “The radiation situation around all Russian nuclear facilities is within the norm and corresponds to natural background radiation,” insists Rosatom, the Russian state atomic energy corporation. They also said theories blaming Russian nuclear facilities as the source of the release are “invalid.” Because this is the only isotope showing elevated concentrations, all types of nuclear power plant accidents or atom bomb tests can be ruled out.
Back in February, a similarly unexplained whiff of iodine-131 was noticed wafting out from the same suspected region near Russia’s Ural mountains. According to France’s IRSN institute, “the trace amounts were detected over Norway, Finland, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, France and Spain.” One report states, “The iodine faded, and the source of the radioactivity wasn’t identified.”
Roshydromet, Russia’s weather service, denied that ruthenium-106 was detected in Russian territory between September 25 and October 7 but they did admit there were “insignificant” concentrations in the St. Petersburg area, measured at “four times lower than the allowed level.”
Ironically, Ruthenia was first discovered in 1844 by a Russian Chemist living in St. Petersburg. Karl Karlovich Klaus named the metal Ruthenia after the Medieval Latin name for Russia. He was trying to find out what the insoluble goo was that a mix of hydrochloric and nitric acids left over when used to refine platinum to the highest possible quality. It took him two years to coax the silvery metal to solidify into a crystal.
The Ruthenium-106 isotope of the metal is comfortably stable and only mildly dangerous. There are only two common uses for the material, as radiation therapy for eye tumors and as a power source for nuclear “battery pack” power supplies called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs).
In 2012, 93 RTGs were removed from use along the Baltic coastline where they had been used to power lighthouses. Those used a different material, strontium-90. The more powerful source of radiation was not properly contained by its casing which made the units a huge risk to both the environment and humans unlucky enough to stumble upon one.
The biggest fear was to get the long abandoned and forgotten equipment out of the hands of terrorists. “The main objective of a dirty bomb is to create uncertainty and fear, and one can use any radioactive substance to achieve this goal,” said nuclear physicist Nils Bøhmer. ”Regardless of whether someone chooses to use strontium-90 or nickel-63, the fear factor would cause a panic.”
The Norwegian government volunteered to assist in the cleanup and replacement of the units with solar power. Right after the recovery was complete, Russia announced plans to start manufacturing a new version of the RTG for use in the Arctic. The newer power packs will be using nickel-63 which will be contained by the cases. Expected to produce power for around 50 years, these units will not produce as much voltage as the older strontium-90 units but should be safer.
One likely explanation that is being discussed is a drug company that packages the materials for use by physicians in medical procedures may have had an uncontrolled release. Possibly one they are anxious for regulators not to find out about.
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