– An unexplained increase of radioactive isotope Iodine-131 has been detected in several countries in Europe. The levels are still beyond dangerous threshold, but the cause of the increase is currently studied by experts. So far, scientists are unable to explain what is behind the baffling increase.
The increased radiation levels, found in low-lying regions of Europe’s atmosphere, were first detected in early January in northern Norway, according to France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN).
Discovered by Glenn Seaborg and John Livingood in 1938 at the University of California, Berkeley, Iodine-131 an isotope of iodine that emits radiation, is used for medical purposes. IRSN describes is an environmental pollutant originating from human activity. It has a relatively short half-life of eight days.
Several European control stations detected the radioactive increase.
“The preliminary report states it was first found during week two of January 2017 in northern Norway,” the IRSN reports. “Iodine-131 was also detected in Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France, and Spain, until the end of January.”
According to IFL Science, “the weather was particularly bad over the week, making it difficult to identify where the emission was coming from. In winter, the air tends to undergo thermal stratification, making it difficult for the atmosphere to mix itself up so pollutants are not dispersed quickly.”
It is also possible the increase of the radioactive isotope is caused by humans. Euro News reports that “some authorities claim its presence could indicate either a secret Russian nuclear missile test launch, or a leak from a nuclear power plant.
Iodine-131 has historical links to United States and Soviet nuclear tests during the 1950s. It has also been found among the radioactive contamination following Japan’s Fukushima reactor meltdown, as well as the Chernobyl accident in 1986.”
Researchers are now busy investing the unusual increase of Iodine-131 and relevant data has been shared between members of an informal European network called Ring of Five gathering organizations involved in the radiological surveillance of the atmosphere.
“We are leading the inquiry,” said Jean-Christophe Gariel, from the IRSN. “This means we are essentially reversing the trajectory of the iodine pollution in order to find out where it came from. But taking into account the weather in recent weeks, it will not be easy to model.”
The type of radioactive pollution means nuclear power stations can be struck off the list of possible suspects.
“We have only detected iodine. If there had been an accident, like the ones in Fukushima or Chernobyl, we would have had leaks of other substances, like caesium,” Gariel said.
“Among the theories considered most likely is that a manufacturer of medical radio-isotopes, probably in Eastern Europe, suffered a leak. This incident closely resembles an episode from 2011, when the Budapest isotopes institute released – legally and harmlessly – an amount of radioactive iodine into the environment,” Euro Activ reports.
The origins of the Ring of Five go back to 1983, when scientists from northern Europe would occasionally detect recently produced fission or activation products in the air. This was in spite of the fact that atmospheric nuclear testing had come to an end.
Today, as soon as abnormal traces of radioactivity are detected in the air anywhere in Europe, an informal network of experts from public bodies such as IRSN springs into action to locate their origin and evaluate the risks to the population.
Remember, there is no reason to panic! France’s IRSN stresses the amounts of radiation detected pose no health threats, but says its “detection is proof of a rather recent release”.