Ruthenium-106: Tracking down a radioactive cloud

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A year ago, scientists noticed increased radioactivity in Germany. Several European measuring stations recorded unusual values ​​of the chemical element ruthenium-106. The source, indicative of this, could be in Russia . But until today an established investigation commission has not been able to determine the origin. And answers are hardly expected. The Greens now demand a stronger use in the search for clues.

Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, chair of the Environment Committee in the Bundestag, complains “a lot of open questions and a pending commission of inquiry”. The Russian Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the government in Moscow are in their eyes “little interested in education,” said Kotting-Uhl the Tagesspiegel.

Just a few weeks ago, the federal government warned that it was “impossible to take appropriate measures to avoid comparable incidents, as long as the origin and causes of the accident of September 2017 are unclear,” said a small request from the Greens.

What happened? In September 2017, monitoring stations had slightly increased radioactivity levels. According to information from the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), ruthenium traces were registered in Germany, for example in Görlitz in Saxony. A health hazard did not exist, it said. Ruthenium-106 is used, inter alia, in cancer therapy or in the power supply of satellites.

The trail leads into the Russian Urals

The origin for the increased radiation dose is not yet known. However, evidence points to the southern southern Ural, where the plutonium factory and the Mayak reprocessing plant are located. In a neighboring town, the Russian meteorological service had measured a dose 986 times higher than normal. In addition, the Mayak plant is notorious: in recent decades, there have been several mishaps and accidents, including 1957 the first serious accident in the history of nuclear energy. To date, people around the plant are affected by the consequences. The Soviet Union concealed the incidents for a long time.

Even after the ruthenium leak last year, official Russian authorities did not contribute to building confidence. The Kremlin and the Rosatom Federal Atomic Agency , which also run the Mayak, initially gave themselves up in ignorance , then explained that all the equipment routinely worked, everything was safe. Russian experts called a collapsed when entering the Earth’s atmosphere satellite as an alleged cause of the increased ruthenium concentration. A version that was soon refuted.

In January, the Russian Institute of Nuclear Safety of the Russian Academy of Sciences set up an international commission of experts to look for clues. Experts from France, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Germany evaluated data in Moscow, which included Rosatom, the Weather Service and the Mayak itself. “We had the feeling that there was a strong effort on the part of the Russian side to support the work seriously,” says Florian Gering, who heads the “Radiological Situation Picture” department at the BfS and was at the two meetings in the Russian capital. There were no independent measurements of international researchers. The radiation source could not be determined by the researchers. None of the measurements presented suggest that it was made near the release, says Gering.

Secure receipts are missing

Most likely, explains the German physicist, was a release in the southern Urals, just to prove it was certainly not. Gering therefore suggests measurements in the northern Urals as the next step. If there are also increased values ​​there, then the Mayak should be excluded as a source. However, such a survey is currently not planned. The work of the Commission is not officially over. However, the prospect of progress is low.

The Federal Environment Ministry speaks of an “unsatisfactory situation with regard to available measurement data”.

“From the Commission you may well expect no impulse, which could move Russia to further clarification,” criticized Kotting-Uhl. “Russia has a duty to initiate further environmental measurements and should invite the members of the Commission of Inquiry.” The Greens MP hopes for an impetus “enlightening states” with the aim as soon as possible in the regions concerned to make further measurements.

Information exchange should be better

At the same time, a possible improvement of the international early warning system is discussed. At the suggestion of the German side, the international information exchange should be improved and accelerated in the future, says Gering – beyond the existing information requirements of the IAEA’s Early Warning Convention. Thus, countries should warn each other in future even at lower readings.

Formally was not violated the convention, shares a spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Environment. “Nevertheless, the Federal Government, in the interest of building confidence, is internationally campaigning to also notify events below this threshold.”

Kotting-Uhl is clearer: The recent incident revealed a vulnerability in the early warning system, criticized the MPs and speaks of a “too much room for interpretation, when an accident in the sense of the Convention must be considered radiologically relevant” and an international message is necessary. “This ambiguity should be eliminated,” says Kotting-Uhl.

The matter also shows that the world is overwhelmed with nuclear power, says the Green politician. “In addition to further measurements and a rapid reform of the global early warning system, we therefore need a European nuclear phase-out, ” she says, “before the next nuclear accident happens.”