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Wake up and smell the ruthenium

Russia’s recent ruthenium scare, which went viral around the globe, brought a serious problem to light: the absence in Russia of proper and transparent monitoring of its environment. 

"What have I done to you? I'm a good one!" Ruthenium responds to radiation-related panic in Russia earlier this autumn. Source: Facebook. In early October, information about a leak of the radioactive isotope ruthenium-106 into the atmosphere appeared in western media. Germany’s radiation watchdog announced that the source of the leak was most probably in the southern Urals, and French experts confirmed that conclusion.

Russia’s state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom, however, denied the claim, saying that according to Roshydromet, the country’s environmental monitoring body, tests for particulate pollutants carried out between 25 September and 7 October failed to find any traces of Ruthenium, apart from a single instance in St Petersburg.

However, at the end of November, Greenpeace Russia received a response to a query it had sent Rosgidromet. This confirmed the discovery of ruthenium-106 in late September in the Chelyabinsk region, just to the east of the Ural mountains. The element was detected near the Mayak complex, a facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. Ruthenium was also found in the atmospheres of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and the Krasnodar, Volgograd, and St Petersburg regions.

Ukrainian scientists also published data about its presence in the Altai, Dubno, Kirov, and Yakutia regions. Roshydromet admitted that in late September and early October atmospheric conditions were right for active movement of air masses, including pollutants, from the southern Urals towards the Mediterranean area and then northern Europe.

Instead of publicising the information, Rosatom lashed out at western media for reporting it

This news triggered an instant sensation, with Russia’s media simultaneously advancing all kinds of theories: it wasn’t Mayak at fault, but another Rosatom facility; the ruthenium could have come from a crashed satellite (although no satellites crashed at the time), and you can’t launch a satellite unnoticed; the source of the leak was in Romania, Kazakhstan, China… One theory held that it was an attempt to discredit Russia in the eyes of the world. Instead of releasing information about the accident to the public, Rosatom instead lashed out at western media for daring to report it.

A few days later, Rosatom invited journalists to a press trip where they could have a sniff of Ruthenium and discover how perfectly safe it was. More than 200 took up the offer, but only 17 were admitted. This triggered general anger, especially as the selection criteria were unclear. Then Rosatom created an advert showing a little cartoon lump of Ruthenium with big eyes, declaring how harmless it was:  “What have I done to you? There’s nothing bad about me!”     

Rosatom’s website then announced that a commission would be established to determine the source of the radiation, but it is unclear when this would happen and who would do it. On 8 December the commission held a press conference, where journalists were once again told that Mayak could not be the source of the emission, and were handed copies of the commission’s conclusion that the culprit had to be an unidentified satellite. Greenpeace sent a petition to the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office: by the next day it had been signed by more than 10,000 people.

Under the carpet

The hype around the ruthenium leak is that Russia has no transparent system for monitoring the state of its environment.

Radiation monitoring is overseen by Rosgidromet, which answers to Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment. The Roshydromet site quotes monthly radiation figures prepared by the Taifun scientific development centre, but they are not very easy to find. Occasionally it publishes other information, but in reality, all you can see is background gamma radiation from a few automatically selected detector elements: you can’t discover anything about the presence of specific radionuclides.

Russia has an automated radiation monitoring system: in other words, all nuclear installations are surrounded by automatic sensors that measure a number of indicators, and Rosatom is responsible for reporting accidents. So, if an accident happens, staff are inevitably made aware of emissions.

Rosgidromet, on the other hand, is only responsible for measuring emissions, but it takes a very long time to process these measurements and in the case of a serious radioactive emission, the publication of the relevant data a month later won’t save anyone from its consequences. For example, we still don’t know what happened in late September near the ruthenium emission zone. And the reports that we do have contain incomplete and sometimes contradictory data, although in faraway France the list of monitoring stations and the measurements around them appeared very fast.

In Russia, by contrast, no one plans to search for the emission’s source, on the supposed grounds that the concentration of ruthenium was too small to monitor. Yet by this logic, we can never learn any lessons from the incident at all. By the time an emission of a larger concentration is detected, it will be too late to look for its source.

Keeping the public happy

It looks as though Russia’s nuclear monitoring and information system is inadequate for the country’s needs. Immediately after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the Soviet authorities set up a body now known as the federal nuclear and radiation safety authority, a powerful enough watchdog at the time, which even managed to halt work at Mayak. However, in 2004 this body became just a subsidiary arm of Rostekhnadzor, the federal environmental, industrial and nuclear supervision service, thereby losing some of its powers.

Meanwhile, Rosatom goes from strength to strength: it is now responsible for the development of Russia’s North Sea Shipping Route and is expected to acquire yet more functions. But are monitoring organs and systems growing at the same rate? Apparently the opposite is happening, and it’s a dangerous tendency.

The river Techa outside the Mayak plant, Chelyabinsk region. Ecodefense, Heinrich Boell Stiftung Russia, Alla Slapovskaya, Alisa Nikulina via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.The very fact that the source of the ruthenium is still officially unknown reveals, at best, the inadequacy of the current radiation monitoring and public reporting systems and at worst, Rosatom’s ability to lobby for secrecy and lying to the public. The precedents for further problems down the road have already been set.

In 1993, Russia experienced its first nuclear accident after the fall of the Soviet Union. This took place at the Siberian Chemical Combine in Tomsk region, which released ruthenium-106. Greenpeace’s archive contains a telling document of the time: a report on the radiation situation compiled by the Commission of the State Committee on Civil Defence, Emergency Situations and Liquidating Natural Disasters. In the letter that accompanies it, Sergey Shoigu, the head of the committee, notes that “just like the Chernobyl disaster, the Atomic Ministry informed both the immediate area and the capital about the accident with a significant delay, which could have led to serious consequences.” That said, even when this delay had been noted, it wasn’t reflected in the Commission’s reports — “in order to calm public opinion”, according to Shoigu.

Books have been written about how the news of the Chernobyl disaster  and the 1957 Mayak accident was kept secret. Time passes, but we still don’t know anything about the radiation situation in our own country.

Translated by Liz Barnes.



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