Throughout 2017, health and safety organizations around the world have been detecting anomalous levels of radiation drifting around Europe. In January, near-hazardous levels of Iodine-131 were detected, which was deemed peculiar given that other isotopes commonly used in nuclear testing were not detected. Reconnaissance aircraft and specialized nuclear-material-sniffing planes were deployed to find the source, but it still remains a mystery. In October, German health officials detected a cloud of a different radioactive isotope wafting over Western Europe and again, science officials were unable to pin down its origin. Now, after months of denying any culpability, Russian meteorological authorities have admitted the radioactive cloud came from their country, but the admission and resulting silence from Russia’s government has only deepened the mystery.
This month, Russian meteorological services agency Roshydromet confirmed that radiation levels had spiked above an area of Western Russia between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains close to Dimitrovgrad, the site of Russia’s Research Institute of Atomic Reactors. The location of these spikes has some French nuclear authorities concerned that a mishap or accident at the plant might be responsible for the radiation cloud, but Rosatom, Russia’s government-owned nuclear energy corporation, has denied that any leaks or accidents have occurred.
Rostatom’s denials are worrisome given the track record of Russian nuclear research. In 1957, one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents occurred in this same region, contaminating over 20,000 square kilometers (9,000 square miles) and forcing the Soviet government to evacuate tens of thousands of residents. All records of that accident were swept under the rug for thirty years until the Russian government began declassifying records in 1989, revealing the horrific extent of the contamination. Residents of the surrounding area still suffer from higher rates of birth defects, cancers, and chromosomal anomalies.
So where does this half-admission leave things? Ultimately, while it’s now clear that something bad happened near one of Russia’s nuclear research facilities, it’s impossible to determine what exactly that anomaly was. At this point, though, why hide an accident from the rest of the world? Just what type of research was being conducted? Or, more terrifyingly, could this be evidence of something more sinister like weapons research or intentional release of radiation? Luckily, the levels of the radiation cloud drifting around the world has so far remained below hazardous. After this incident, Chernobyl, and even the Fukushima disaster, it’s likely only a matter of time before migrating clouds of radiation become our daily reality.