Nature Society

What’s Behind a Mysterious Radiation Spike Across Europe

Small amounts of nuclear radiation spread across Europe last month, and no one can figure out why.

First detected over the Norway-Russia border in January, the radioactive Iodine-131 bloom was then found over several European countries, and while unsubstantiated rumours of nuclear testing by Russia have been cropping up, officials say it’s most likely linked to an unreported pharmaceutical mishap.

While the radiation spike happened in January, officials in Finland and France have only just gone public with information on the incident, announcing that after the spike was detected in Norway, it appeared in Finland, Poland, Czechia (Czech Republic), Germany, France and Spain, until the end of January.

When asked why Norway didn’t inform the public last month, when it was the first to detect the radiation in its northernmost county, Finnmark, Astrid Liland from the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority told the Barents Observer:

“The measurements at Svanhovd in January were very, very low. So were the measurements made in neighbouring countries, like Finland. The levels raise no concern for humans or the environment. Therefore, we believe this had no news value.”

As France’s nuclear safety authority, the IRSN, announced last week, the actual amount of radioactive Iodine-131 in Europe’s ground-level atmosphere in January “raise no health concerns”, and has since returned to normal.

But what’s most disconcerting about the event isn’t the level of radiation that spread through Europe – it’s the fact that no one can say what actually happened.

What we do know is that Iodine-131 has a half-life of just eight days, so detecting it in the atmosphere is proof of a recent release.

“The release was probably of recent origin. Further than this, it is impossible to speculate,” Brian Gornall from Britain’s Society for Radiological Protection told Ben Sullivan at Motherboard.

Right now, the best bet is that the origin of the radioactive Iodine-131 is somewhere in Eastern Europe – something that conspiracy theorists have latched onto as evidence that Russia performed a nuclear test in the Arctic.

But there is no evidence of this taking place, and the fact that only Iodine-131 – and no other radioactive substances – were detected strongly suggests this is not the answer.

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June 2017
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