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Radiation levels in Europe are rising, and nobody knows why

Published Jun 29th, 2020 8:03PM EDT
radiation europe
Image: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Shutterstock

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  • Radioactive material is drifting toward northern Europe from the direction of Russia, raising questions over the country’s several nuclear power plants.
  • Russia formally denied that anything was wrong, stating via its state-owned media agency that the reactors were working as intended.
  • Russia’s sketchy history with nuclear power and coverups has led to plenty of skepticism.

With nuclear power plants supplying some areas of the globe with power, keeping track of ambient radiation levels is vitally important to ensuring the safety of those near the plants as well as many miles away. A new report out of Norway suggests that something is amiss, with elevated levels of radioactivity in northern Europe being detected recent, but the source remains unknown.

Officials initially suspected some kind of change with a Russian power plant. Russia operates several nuclear power facilities, and at least two of them are close enough that they could be the source of the increased radioactivity levels. Russia, predictably, says everything is fine.

As the Associated Press reports, TASS, Russia’s massive government-funded news agency, reported that the two power plants in question — one near St. Petersburg and another near Murmansk — were operating “normally” and that all the levels of radiation being monitored at both facilities were “within the norm.”

Nuclear safety officials across northern Europe are working on tracing the source of the radioactivity but have thus far come up with nothing. Detecting radiation in higher-than-normal levels is one thing, but figuring out where the clouds may have drifted in from is a challenge even with modern meteorological tools.

The Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment took a look at the situation unfolding in northern Europe and concluded that the radioactive isotopes that are drifting in are manmade. Moreover, the agency believes they are drifting over from western Russia, though “a specific source location cannot be identified due to the limited number of measurements.”

Russia obviously has a bit of a messy history when it comes to nuclear power. The Chernobyl incident wasn’t just a tragedy for the lives lost during the meltdown and the suffering caused for decades after, but it was also a glimpse at how far the country is willing to go to hide its own failings. The official government reports regarding the Chernobyl accident still cite very low casualty numbers despite decades of evidence to the contrary.

Russia famously pushed back against HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, stating that it was false and that the portrayals of its top government officials were skewed. The country even announced plans to make its own version of a Chernobyl miniseries so that it could tell what it says is the true story.

Needless to say, nobody really believes anything Russia has to say when it comes to nuclear power today, even though decades have passed since Chernobyl. The fact that top experts suspect the radiation is coming from Russia — and Russia’s denial that it is doing anything differently — may be as far as this story officially goes, but the truth may be a great deal murkier.