Mystery radioactive iodine found in Barents Sea region earlier this month traced to Hungary, not Russia, says Finland

An aerial view shows the campus of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which houses Izotop Intezet, a Hungarian isotope maker, in Budapest November 17
Laszlo Balogh

Publish date: February 11, 2012

Written by: Charles Digges

Insignificant quantities of radioactive iodine-131 that turned up at the beginning of the month in Northern Norway, Sweden and Finland – initially thought to be emanating from Russia – were declared by Finnish nuclear safety officials to have come from Hungary.

Initial information released by each of the concerned countries’ radiation safety authorities, particularly a statement by Norway’s Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), said the origin of the iodine-131 could not be determined, but hinted heavily that it could have come from a Russian source or had crossed through Russian territory before it was discovered in late January.

Information about the iodine measurements were released a number of days after Norway, Sweden and Finland had conducted tests.  

Iodine is used for purposes of healthcare, research and industry. Iodine, in low doses, is used to treat thyroid issues.

But Iodine-131, linked to cancer if found in high doses, can contaminate products such as milk and vegetables. Iodine-131 has a half-life of just eight days.

Russian nuclear installations in the Barents Sea area all vociferously protested that they had anything to do with the discoveries of iodine-131 despite many activities taking place on Russia’s bordering Kola Peninsula that might have accounted for the presence of the iodine.

Now they are apparently off the hook.

The new announcement released on Tuesday by STUK, Finland’s radiation safety body, said the iodine-131 had not appeared from Russia, but rather from an isotope manufacturing plant in Budapest, Hungary.

David Wilkes, who works with the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), while commenting on Bellona’s earlier report on the iodine-131 residues discovered in the Barents region, agreed that Russia was not the culprit.

“Assuming it is a one-off release, it must come from an operating nuclear facility within the last 2 or 3 months (10 half-lives),” he wrote.

“It is not going to come from nuclear waste that has been out of the reactor for more than that short period. So Lepse (a nuclear waste storage ship near Murmansk) is not the source for example.”

STUK said it had measured amounts of iodine-131 in aerosol samples between January 16th and 23rd from all of Finland’s measuring points of airborne radioactivity. STUK also detected iodine-131 in periods when samples were taken after January 23.

The statement said that, “The measured amounts of radioactive iodine in Finland were of the order of one millionth of a becquerel per cubic meter of air. These quantities are so small that they do not affect human health.”

It concluded its statement by saying that, “The HAEA’s [Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority’s] investigation showed that the radioactive iodine originated from a plant in Budapest where radioisotopes are handled,” adding that, “during the handling of iodine packages in the production process, radioactive iodine was released into the air.”

Earlier European radiation mystery apparently solved

The statement seems to lay to rest an earlier iodine-131 contamination mystery that had begun in November when the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Sweden, Slovakia Germany, France and Poland told the International Atomic Energy Agency they had detected trace elements of the isotope in their atmosphere.

At that time the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority (HAEA) had tentatively said the spread of the isotope – which posed no health risks to the public – had come from the Izotop Intezet company in Budapest, which manufactures isotopes for medical purposes. 

Yet officials from Izotop Intezet were divided in their statements. One high-ranking official, Jozsef Kornyei, acknowledged that the company may have been responsible for the release, as the manufacturer had been dealing with a filtration problem between September 8th and November 16th. Another, Mihaly Lakatos, said that any iodine released from the firm was  “highly unlikely.”

But Kornyei said that the firm first noticed the heightened release of iodine-131 during the first half of 2011.

Production restarted in September after new filters were installed, but the release of radioactive material stayed above normal levels, so the process was halted again in November.

Kornyei told the Associate Press that new ventilators were being added at the plant in an effort to limit the excessive release of the radioactive material and that production of Iodine-131 would not be restarted until next year.

HAEA head Jozsef Ronaky, who initially contacted the IAEA about the release and cited in a letter that it was likely linked to the Izotop Intezet, maintained that conclusion.

“I think it is probably us, that is [Izotop Intezet], that is the source,” he said.

The company when contacted about the new statement from STUK by Bellona declined to comment.

Questions remain

The statements on the iodine that was released simultaneously by the NRPA, STUK, and Sweden earlier this month indicated that the iodine-131 had been detected exclusively in areas bordering on the Barents Sea in the far north between January 16th and January 23rd – the same timeframe specified in its Tuesday release

Yet the Tuesday statement from STUK indicated that all of its reporting stations throughout the country had now reported the trace amounts of iodine, amounting to a slight contradiction in its earlier assertions. All of these statements from each of the Nordic countries, however, did qualify that the origin and extent of iodine spread were under continued investigation.

STUK reported in its most recent release that it had received “assurances from the HAEA that the technology used to handle iodine and the production in general will be improved so that a similar situation would not occur again.”