Scientists just found the 'chemical fingerprint' of an alleged nuclear explosion that went undeclared in Russia

A sign warns people against entering the city of Ozersk near the Mayak nuclear power plant.
Katherine Jacobsen / AP photo
A group of scientists known as the "Ring of Five" discovered unusual radiation levels in Europe in 2017.
A new study offers "irrefutable evidence" that the radiation comes from the reprocessing of nuclear waste.
The study provides further evidence to support the claim that Russia reported no accident at the Mayak nuclear power plant in September 2017.
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In the past three years, a group of scientists called "Ring of Five" has concluded that an unidentified nuclear accident occurred in Russia in 2017.
In July 2019, the group released evidence that an explosion could have taken place in the Mayak nuclear facility - once the center of the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Mayak was also the site of the 1957 Kyshtym explosion, the third worst nuclear accident in the world after Fukushima and Chernobyl.
At the end of 2019, the scientists suggested that the accident occurred on September 26, 2017, given the large amount of radiation that was allowed at that time. The radiation seemed to spread from Russia's southern Urals (where the Mayak facility is located) towards Central Europe, Scandinavia and Italy.
A third study, released on Monday, offers "irrefutable evidence" that the explosion is related to the recycling of nuclear waste - a method that separates plutonium and uranium from spent fuel. The Mayak plant is the largest nuclear reprocessing plant in the region. It is the most likely, if not the only possible place of origin - although Russia never recognized a nuclear accident in the plant in 2017.
"We shouldn't forget that Mayak is a military facility - and of course the Russian Federation is very cautious when it comes to military facilities," said Georg Steinhauser, a professor at the University of Hanover in Germany and one of the student authors, Business Insider said in August. "I assume that this would not be much different for other superpower nations."
An "unexpected" discovery in 2017
The Ring of Five has been monitoring the European atmosphere for increased radiation levels since the mid-1980s. The group originally came from five countries: Sweden, Germany, Finland, Norway and Denmark. After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the team sought help from other nations to expand their efforts. It now includes researchers from 22 countries.
On October 2, 2017, Italian scientists informed the Ring of Five about increased ruthenium 106 levels, a radioactive isotope, in Milan. It was the first time since Chernobyl that ruthenium-106 was found in the atmosphere.
"We were stunned," said Steinhauser. "We had no idea that the air could be radioactive. We only measured air filters like we do 52 times a week, and suddenly there was an unexpected result."
Steinhauser said the explosion was "the largest nuclear fuel reprocessing release that has ever occurred."
However, Russia has not responded to any findings from the five-ring. In December 2017, Russian officials attributed the radiation to an artificial satellite that was burned in the atmosphere. The latest study by the scientists excludes this possibility.
"A turning point for an already turbulent mix"
The study is the first direct evidence that the ruthenium-106 comes from the recycling of nuclear waste. A unique "chemical fingerprint" was identified from the isotope samples collected in 2017.
In these samples, the scientists found evidence of two chemicals commonly associated with nuclear waste reprocessing: ruthenium (III) chloride and ruthenium (IV) oxide. This provided "direct evidence that fuel reprocessing was the origin of the 2017 environmental release," the scientists wrote.
The Techa River, where the Mayak nuclear complex has reportedly dumped waste from spent fuel.
Katherine Jacobsen / AP photo
Under normal circumstances, nuclear power plants would wait at least three years before reprocessing spent fuel. In this case, however, the reprocessing seems to have taken place after only two years. This means that the reprocessing activity had to be exothermic or give off heat, according to the study.
"With regard to the typical reprocessing protocol, the spent fuel was unusually young," wrote the scientists. "It is likely that this exothermic capture process has turned out to be a turning point for an already turbulent mixture, resulting in an abrupt and uncontrolled release."
The radiation cannot endanger human health
Scientists do not see the release of ruthenium-106 as an immediate threat to human health, but the long-term consequences are unknown. The French Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety found in 2018 that the ruthenium 106 content in the atmosphere poses no danger to human health or the environment.
The nuclear release was "nothing compared to Chernobyl," said Steinhauser in August. The Chernobyl explosion released around 5.3 million terabecquerels (a measure of radioactivity) of radioactive material into the atmosphere, according to a 2013 analysis. In contrast, an estimated 250 terabecquerel ruthenium was released in the alleged accident at the Mayak facility.
However, Steinhauser said there could be a reason to monitor food safety near the Mayak facility if radiation gets into the soil and water.
"We want to get more detailed information about what actually happened," he said. "There is a good chance that we will catch every single accident - but in the present case, the surprise was on our side."
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