Physicist holds Russian leak likeliest source of radiation spike

Andi Hektor.

PHOTO: Erakogu

It is likely that a slight spike in radioactivity in the air over Estonia was caused by an unknown leak during the handling of nuclear waste in Russia, physicist Andi Hektor says. He describes Estonia’s outdated radioactivity screening system as worrying.

What is your theory for the mystical radioactive cloud that moved over Estonia?

Now, this is highly speculative, but I believe it came from a nuclear waste handling facility or complex where a small quantity of material leaked.

Can we rule out military origin?

Not completely, because this kind of waste is also created in the military sector. However, the isotopes detected rather suggest civilian radioactive waste.

What kind of isotopes are we dealing with? How are they created?

These are unstable isotopes that are very rare in nature and created when nuclear fuel degrades. They are created both as a result of a nuclear explosion and in nuclear reactors, while an explosion would cause a certain distribution of particles. What we are seeing now rather suggests we’re dealing with reactor waste.

Could we suspect Russian nuclear weapon experiments?

The radiation is unlikely to be from nuclear weapon tests. That would be contrary to international conventions. And even if Russia were to hold a nuclear test, it would not do so in our region; rather, it would take place somewhere in Siberia. They would try to keep it under wraps and away from radiation monitoring stations.

A nuclear power plant supplying electricity to Saint Petersburg lies just 70 kilometers from the Estonian border.

Looking at the map of nuclear power plants in our region and presuming that Nordic nuclear power plants and waste handlers are honest and open, the Sosnovy Bor NPP or waste handling units in the area are the likeliest candidates.

However, Russia says their plants are operational and there are no problems…

Nuclear power plants are full of sensors that should pick up on any such leaks. In addition, incidents in Russia are usually diligently reported to the IAEA, which is why it is unlikely the problem was created in a power plant. This points to a leak at a nuclear waste handling facility. Again, it is difficult to say what type of leak this is, but even a small one can be detected from a very long distance using modern equipment.

Is Russia being secretive or is it possible they have not detected the cloud of particles?

Russia has been caught hiding monitoring station data and trying to pass a military accident where radioactive material leaked off as repair work in the near past. This leaves me a little cautious.

Rather, this suggest they have been reluctant to report the incident.

Would drawing parallels with the Chernobyl disaster be going too far?

An incident such as the one that took place at Chernobyl would release such a massive and strong radioactive cloud to be immediately detectable. Monitoring technology has come a long way since then and we have more monitoring stations. Satellite technology has also come along by leaps and bounds. Such an accident would cause a massive fire that the Americans and international organizations that operate satellites would discover immediately.

How quickly are radioactive particles detected these days?

Generally, very quickly. The air is pumped through a filter that picks up the radioactive material that is then tested for elements. There are always natural radioactive elements in the air, while cesium points to artificial origin of the material in this case.

Coming to Estonia, we also have monitoring equipment, while we can always ask if we have enough. It worries me.

Reaction time is the question. In some places, test samples are taken to the lab for analysis once a week. What this means is that we will learn that we had a radioactive cloud a week later. I would like to see a prompter system where anomalies would result in early warning and action.

Are there such prompt systems elsewhere in the world?

Yes, definitely. IAEA requirements are so tough for countries that have nuclear energy, such as Sweden and Finland, that they simply must maintain cutting edge systems. In the Baltics, where there is no nuclear power, the screening system is inevitably not as good.