Detectors have picked up an unexplained wave of radioactivity across Europe

France’s public institute for radiological and nuclear risks (IRSN) said they detected tiny amounts of iodine-131, a radionuclide of human origin, in the “ground-level atmosphere” all across Europe back. The isotope was first detected in the second week of January over northern Norway, after which it moved over Finland, Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, and Spain. Levels have already returned to normal.

“Since only Iodine-131 was measured, and no other radioactive substances, we think it originates from a pharmaceutical company producing radioactive drugs. Iodine-131 is used for treatment of cancer,”Astrid Liland, head of the section for emergency preparedness at their NRPA, told Motherboard,

Liland said wind direction suggests a physical origin somewhere in Eastern Europe. The British Society for Radiological Protection (SRP) agreed on the probable pharmaceutical origin of the nuclide, but their spokesperson wasn’t willing to speculate further. It is possible to partially reconstruct the path the cloud of radioactivity followed as it spread. But that will depend on the integration of a great deal of data on the movement of air masses and weather systems, between potentially every country in the EU.

The iodine-131 detected in Sweden, then Finland, came from the east, said Olivier Masson, an IRSN specialist in atmospheric monitoring. “The area concerned, which extended from Poland to Lithuania and across the whole of Scandinavia, indicated a distant source, in all likelihood somewhere in Russia,” Masson said. “Using the Institute’s very high-volume filtration stations and gamma spectrometers, we detected micro-traces in France of less than 0.8 micro-becquerels per cubic meter (µBq/m3).”

Image by the IRSN

Iodine-131 is synonymous with Project Manhattan and the test detonations in the American West, so there’s a good deal of speculation about the nature of the emission as well. But, regardless of its origin, the eight-day half-life of the nuclide means that this is proof of a recent release.

In order to figure out more about what happened, the IRSN has given their data to an organization called the Ring of Five. It’s an international radiation-monitoring group that comprises 20 European countries, along with contacts in the United States and Canada. The organization has existed since 1983, when scientists across Europe would occasionally find trace levels of radioactive elements in the atmosphere with no simple way to combine their findings, or monitor whether radioactive particles were spreading across a large geographic area or were confined to a particular region or country. The organization expanded considerably after the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine resulted in heavy fallout in Belarus, showing the need for a wide network of sensor systems that could monitor radiation levels in the aftermath of a nuclear accident or attack.

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