Ruthenium-106 Persists in the Environment for 10 years
Russia Denies Responsibility for Major Release Recorded in 43 Countries
By Bonnie Urfer
Sometime in the last week of September, somewhere south of the Ural Mountains, 1,000 miles east of Moscow near Mayak, Russia, something happened that sent a plume of radioactive ruthenium-106 across Europe. Detectors in France showed the radiation between September 27 and October 13. Italy picked it up on Sept. 29. In all, according the International Atomic Energy Agency, the release affected 43 countries, including Russia. Production of ruthenium-106 occurs in the core of a nuclear reactor or during reprocessing of used reactor fuel. In response to the unclaimed, yet significant release, an independent commission of scientists from Russia and Europe hopes to pinpoint the source of the contamination, their greatest fears being additional accidents or releases from the unidentified source.
Bellona, the international environmental NGO based in Oslo, reported Nov. 27: “Since late September, it’s become clear that a huge release of the radioactive isotope ruthenium-106 took place at the Mayak Chemical Combine, Russia’s notorious and sprawling nuclear fuel reprocessing complex located near Chelyabinsk in the southern Ural Mountains. … But you won’t be hearing that from the Russians,” because they are busy denying or criticizing reports of the plume, and floating alternative theories.
Moscow’s history of denials, including waiting 30 years to admit the 1957 Mayak, Kyshtym nuclear fuel explosion that released 50-100 tons of high-level radioactive waste to the environment, its delay in admitting a Chernobyl reactor had exploded in 1986, and more recently, an iodine-131 plume detected in July of 2017, make today’s disavows worthless.
Since the only origin of ruthenium-106 is a nuclear reactor, and because monitors detected no other isotopes, the search narrows to several possibilities near the Russia/Kazakhstan border: a facility that either separates the isotope from a “bouquet” of others produced in a reactor; a factory that uses it to produce medical isotopes for cancer and tumor treatment; the Mayak facility itself during “vitrification” or processing of waste fuel; or a road accident involving transport of the radioactive material. Another possibility is a metal smelting mishap like happened in Spain in May 1998. The metal recycling company Acerinox melted scrap containing cesium-137, and detectors in Switzerland alerted authorities to the cesium plume that doused much of Western Europe then.
Russia denies culpability although officials there monitored the spread of the radiation and admitted something happened. Some 368 confirmations recorded the plume in Europe. A spokesperson with Russia’s nuclear entity, Rosatom, claims the level of contamination registers 20,000 times less than the allowed annual dose. “Allowed dose” sounds harmless, cumulative exposure over a lifetime increases the risks of cancer. Russia, as reported in the New York Times on Nov. 15, said, “One of the countries in the eastern part of the European Union was more likely to be the source, according to Rosatom, due to the high radiation levels over Italy, Romania and Ukraine.”
Ruthenium-106 has a half-life of 373.6 days, meaning that after one year half will have decayed (to rhodium-106) and half remains. Radioactive elements remain in the environment and the food chain for the 10 half-lives it takes to decay away.
“Ruthenium compounds should be regarded as highly toxic and as carcinogenic,” says the Royal Society of Chemistry. News organizations reporting on the contamination uniformly failed to inform the public that this dispersal adds to the radioactivity that carpeted Europe when Chernobyl burned for 40 days in 1986. Not a single story we reviewed noted that, as with all radioactive substances, 10 half-lives are needed for the ruthenium to decay away. In addition, ruthenium is a beta particle emitter, and beta radiation does the greatest damage when inhaled or ingested. In the body, ruthenium goes to the bone.
The radiation present in the village of Argayash in the Chelyabinsk region, measured nearly 1,000 times higher than normal. France’s Institute of Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) reported the contamination “major.” Russia monitored ruthenium-106 above the southern Ural Mountains in September. Nice, in southern France, experienced the worst concentrations of the isotopes between Oct. 2 and 9. The IRSN’s report of Oct. 9 says that if the accident had happened in France, people for miles around would have been evacuated and warned.
Director for health at IRSN, Jean-Christophe Gariel told National Public Radio that the matter might be referred to the United Nations. In spite of the alarm, the press repeated the standard nuclear mantra, “No danger to the public.”
The New York Times reported that “German and French nuclear security agencies concluded that the pollution had not threatened the health of Europeans or the environment in which they live.” Germany’s radiation agency commented, “You could inhale from that country’s Ruthenium cloud for a straight week and still have breathed in no more radiation than you naturally do in an hour.” Time magazine claimed on Nov. 10, that “The cloud was harmless and has dissipated.” Deutsche Welle reported on Oct. 5 that “Officials say there is no risk to human health whatsoever” and assured readers that ruthenium is one of the safer isotopes.
The radioactive plume began dissipating in the first week of October, and by the 13th the IRSN declared the air clear. Random testing of mushrooms and milk may take place although the agency says contamination of food from the dispersal is “unlikely” and export of food from the area is scarce so deems food monitoring unnecessary.
The story continues as the Russian/European scientific commission gets to work. Environmental groups have demanded a full investigation, an end to waste fuel reprocessing, and the phase-out of power reactor operations that produce the waste.