(EnviroNews World News) — On February 13, 2018, France’s Institut de Radioprotectionet de Surete Nucleaire (IRSN) reported airborne particulate matter containing radioactive iodine 131. Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) issued a press release on February 19, saying it also found iodine 131 in the air over Helsinki, Imatra and other Finnish cities. Poland, Germany, and Spain were among other countries to detect the airborne iodine particles. The dangerous isotopes were measured first in Norway, but the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA) didn’t report it.
“We do measure small amounts of radioactivity in [the] air from time to time because we have very sensitive measuring equipment. The measurements at Svanhovd [Norway] in January were very, very low. So were the measurements made in neighboring countries, like Finland. The levels raise no concern for humans or the environment. Therefore, we believe this had no news value,” Astrid Liland, head of the Section for Emergency Preparedness at the NRPA, told the Barents Observer. The NRPA has since released the information and points people to its system of monitoring stations, which offer real-time information for public viewing, while displaying what’s being detected at any given time.
Created by way of the nuclear fission process, iodine 131 has only an eight-day half-life, which means the release occurred very recently. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the three most common sources of iodine 131 are “a localized hospital accident, a major nuclear power plant release involving melted fuel, or an aboveground atomic bomb detonation.”
While every monitoring agency repeated that the small amount of iodine 131 found represented no threat to the health of people or the environment in their respective areas, that wouldn’t necessarily be true for those exposed at the point of origin. Air pollution concentrates most heavily near its source, with larger, heavier particles falling out quickly after an incident, while smaller more vaporous particles can be carried for hundreds or thousands of miles, falling out wherever the winds and precipitation carry them. This means that people near the radioactive iodine release were exposed to much heavier doses than people far away in Europe.
Because of the “rough” weather patterns, Liland said there was no way to find the source of the iodine 131, unless someone comes clean (pun intended). Esteemed nuclear expert, engineer, and former reactor operator Arnie Gundersen addressed this type of incident previously with EnviroNews in an email interview saying, “It’s kind of like passing gas in church. Everybody knows it happened but no one is admitting to be the source!” His best guess is the iodine 131 is from a nuclear fuel leak in Eastern Europe or Russia.
With the isotope being detected in many European nations, Liland also concurs with Gundersen’s supposition that the source is likely somewhere in Eastern Europe.
“It speaks to the sensitivity of the instruments that scientists continue to pick up these events. As the detection instruments become more sensitive, the release can occur further away [and still be detected],” Gundersen told EnviroNews World News in an email. “Now passing gas in the back pew can be picked up in the front pew! Who knows where it came from? I stick by Eastern Europe or Russia, because the reporting requirements are less stringent and nobody expected they would get caught!”
What does seem likely is that the radioactive material came from a fission accident and not from a bomb explosion or hospital. “Hospital iodine usually shows up as a liquid release,” Gundersen continued. “It is administered in an IV and excreted through urine. Airborne iodine is unlikely but not impossible from a hospital.”
Iodine 131 is linked to higher rates of thyroid cancer and nodules and can also lead to hypothyroidism. The ATSDR explains that the most significant way people are exposed to iodine 131 is through ingestion of milk from cows, sheep, or goats. The isotope drops to pasture lands, animals eat the grass and the milk becomes contaminated. The thyroid soaks up the iodine and the radioactivity is released internally. Goat and sheep milk will have about 10 times more contamination than cow milk, and people with iodine deficiencies will absorb more of the radionuclide.
People living near nuclear power plants are recommended to keep non-radioactive iodine pills on hand, so that in the event of a meltdown, the pills can be consumed, saturating the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine so the body will excrete the iodine 131. The problem with this strategy is that the pills must be consumed before a person is exposed to iodine 131, and in nearly every major nuclear accident on record, power utilities and governments have engaged in initial cover-ups, while the population was being exposed to radionuclides. Additionally, iodine pills do nothing to protect people against the myriad other dangerous isotopes created when nuclear fuel melts.
On November 11, 2017, EnviroNews published a story about a radioactive ruthenium 106 cloud that came from an unknown source. While no one claimed to be responsible for the episode, it was later traced to the Mayak Production Association. With the “rough” weather patterns, the source for this latest release may never be found.
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- Shad Engkilterra - Journalist, Author