Mysterious radioactive leak that swept Europe came from Russia, study confirms despite Kremlin denial

Moscow denies the Mayak facility was the source and has not released an official statement

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 30 July 2019 07:30 BST
Mysterious radioactive leak that swept Europe came from Russia, study confirms despite Kremlin denial

The source of a mysterious radioactive leak that swept Europe in 2017 has been traced to a nuclear processing plant in the southern Ural mountains in Russia, a new study confirms.

Scientists analysed more than 1,300 data points all over the world to find the source of the enormous leak, which released 100 times more radiation in Europe than 2011’s Fukushima disaster.

The source – which is believed to be the Russian Mayak facility – was not a reactor accident but an incident in a nuclear reprocessing plant, researchers found.

Russia has always denied the facility was the source and no official statement has been released in response to this latest research.

The alarm bell was raised in October 2017 by Italian scientists who noticed a spike of the radioactive ruthenium-106. It was then detected in many European countries as well as in Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and even in the Caribbean.

The fact that ruthenium was the only radioactive material detected strongly suggested the source was a nuclear reprocessing plant, as reactor accidents typically release a number of different elements.

Scientists could pinpoint the release to between 6pm on 25 September 2017 to noon the following day.

“We measured radioactive ruthenium-106. The measurements indicate the largest singular release of radioactivity from a civilian reprocessing plant,” said Georg Steinhauser, one of the lead researchers from the University of Hannover.

The data was taken from 176 measuring stations in 29 countries. Despite the high concentration of radioactive material it was not harmful to human health anywhere in Europe, according to the paper published in scientific journal PNAS.

It is not the first time the Mayak plant has made headlines.

Almost exactly 60 years earlier, in 1957, the site suffered the world’s second most serious nuclear incident after Chernobyl when a tank containing liquid waste from plutonium production exploded and contaminated the area.

It led to the release of radiation over an area of over 20,000 square miles. The accident remained secret until 1976.

Professor Steinhauser said; “This time, however, it was a pulsed release that was over very quickly.

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“We were able to show that the accident occurred in the reprocessing of spent fuel elements, at a very advanced stage, shortly before the end of the process chain,” he said.

The present-day Mayak plant has been a target for activists, who say managers have not learned the lessons of the 1957 disaster. They claim the increased production targets have come at the cost of safety.

“Even though there is currently no official statement, we have a very good idea of what might have happened,” Professor Steinhauser said.

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