Has There Been A “Nuclear Incident” In The Arctic?
Increased levels of radioactive iodine isotopes have been detected across Europe, and now the deployment of the Air Force’s WC-135 “Constant Phoenix” atmosphere-sniffing jet has deepened the mystery.
By Tyler Rogoway / February 19, 2017
There have been rumblings regarding some sort of nuclear incident—or possibly incidents—in the Arctic over the last month. Multiple reports, some of them from official monitoring organizations, have reported iodine 131—a radioactive isotope often associated with nuclear fission—has been detected via air sampling stations throughout the region.
The first detection of the isotope came during the second week of January, via an air sampling station located in Svanhovd, on Norway’s border with Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Within days, air sampling stations as far south as Spain also detected the presence of small amounts of the isotope. The fact that iodine-131 has a half-life of just eight days would point to the release occurring just days earlier, and not being a remnant of a past nuclear event.
Because of the low levels of concentration, there is no health risk to the public or the environment, at least on a wide scale. By comparison, these recent measurements are roughly 1/1000th the size of what was detected during the Fukushima incident and 1/1,000,000th the concentration found in the nuclear tainted cloud that washed across Europe following the Chernobyl disaster.
Iodine 131 levels monitored across Europe last month (IRIN graphic):
After weeks without answers, the story seemed to pass as a peculiarity, not nearly an unprecedented one at that, until Friday when the US dispatched its WC-135 Constant Phoenix atmospheric testing aircraft to Europe without explanation. The highly unique aircraft are specifically designed to respond to nuclear incidents—especially those that include the detonation of nuclear warheads.
By sampling the air over wide areas and at altitude, the aircraft can provide critical data to better understand the “signature” of a radiation release. During nuclear tests, this can help scientists define what type of weapon was detonated, and, in conjunction with other data, how large the blast was. They can also be used to measure the effects and scale of other radiological events, like the meltdown of nuclear plants. For instance, the WC-135s went to work following the 2011 earthquake that resulted in the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant......................