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Examining the radioactive isotopes from Russia’s mystery explosion

How nuclear scientists are decoding Russia’s mystery explosion. Isotopes that caused a radiation spike earlier this month probably came from an exploding nuclear-reactor core — but device’s application is still unknown. Nature, Elizabeth Gibney , 30 Aug 19, 

Rumours continue to swirl about a blast at a Russian naval base on 8 August, which killed five scientists and caused a short, unexplained spike in γ-radiation.

Information has been slow to emerge and confused by conflicting reports, but this week, Russia’s weather agency, Roshydromet, finally revealed details about the nuclear radiation that was released.

The information suggests that a nuclear reactor was involved in the blast, which lends weight to the theory that Russia was testing a missile known as Burevestintnik, or Skyfall. President Vladimir Putin told Russia’s parliament in 2018 that the nation was developing the missile, which is propelled by an on-board nuclear reactor and could have unlimited range.

But because official information about the cause could be scarce, independent researchers are finding ways to glean more details about the explosion.

Nature examines the growing evidence.

What have official sources said about the blast?

The explosion happened at a military facility in northwestern Russia’s Arkhangelsk region. The region is home to Nenoksa, one of the Russian Navy’s major research and development sites.

A day after the blast, Russia’s nuclear agency, Rosatom, said that an accident happened during “tests on a liquid propulsion system involving isotopes” and later added that the incident happened on an offshore platform.

Meanwhile, Roshydromet reported a brief spike in γ-radiation at 16 times the normal level in the city of Severodvinsk, around 30 kilometres east of Nenoksa.

On 26 August, Roshydromet revealed the isotopes found in rain and air samples: strontium-91, barium-139, barium-140 and lanthanum-140.

What do we know about the scientists who died?

Rosatom named the dead scientists as Alexei Viushin, Evgeny Kortaev, Vyacheslav Lipshev, Sergei Pichugin and Vladislav Yanovsky. It’s not clear whether they were killed when thrown off the sea platform, or after being exposed to radiation……..

What do the isotopes tell us?

The detected isotopes of barium, strontium and lanthanum would be created in the core of a nuclear reactor, which produces energy by splitting uranium atoms in a chain reaction. These isotopes would have been released if a core exploded, says Claire Corkhill, a nuclear scientist at the University of Sheffield, UK.

Any damage an explosion might have caused to the reactor core would probably have led to the release of radioactive iodine and caesium, says Marco Kaltofen, a nuclear scientist at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the environment investigation firm Boston Chemical Data Corp, both in Massachusetts. An uncorroborated report in The Moscow Times on 16 August said that local doctors had traces of caesium-137 in their muscle tissue. And a Norwegian nuclear authority detected an unexplained spike in radioactive iodine-131 almost 700 kilometres away in Svanhovd after the blast. But this could be from another source: iodine-131 can be released in small quantities during the production of radionuclides for medical purposes, says Corkhill.

Boris Zhuikov, head of the Laboratory of Radioisotope Complex at the Institute for Nuclear Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, has an alternative explanation. His calculations show that if an explosion damaged the housing of a nuclear reactor, rather than the core, and caused a leak of radioactive noble gases — which are a product of fission — then by the time the nuclei reached the detector in Severodvinsk they would have decayed to leave precisely the isotopes observed.

But Kaltofen cautions that circumstantial evidence points to damage to a reactor core…….. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02574-9

August 31, 2019 - Posted by | incidents, Russia

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