Jan Haverkamp, Senior expert nuclear energy and energy policy at WISE
On 15 April 2020, the Council of State, the Netherlands’s highest administrative court, granted the appeal of Nuclear Transparency Watch member World Information Service on Energy (WISE) to access measurement data following an accident at the Mayak nuclear reprocessing plant in the Southern Urals, Russia. It had requested the original of a document from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna (IAEA) that was leaked on a Russian website. The document provides a list of measurement data from the Ru-106 isotope as observed by monitoring stations across Europe.
A study by dozens of renowned European institutes and scientists, based on this and following data, showed that the source of Ru-106 had to be the Mayak reprocessing plant located near the closed city of Ozhersk. The accident allegedly occurred when Russia’s nuclear giant Rosatom attempted to manufacture a Cerium-144 source from relatively fresh burnt-out fuel rods from a Russian nuclear power plant for an Italian / French Euratom research project in late September 2017.
Although the measured values did not pose a danger to the population around the measuring points, the French institute IRSN concluded in November 2017 that “an accident of this magnitude in France would have required to implement locally measures of protection of the populations on a radius of the order of a few kilometres around the location of the release.” To this day, Russia continues to deny that anything has happened in Mayak.
In the weeks after the accident, several research institutes and nuclear authorities reported to the IAEA that they measured Ru-106 in the atmosphere. The IAEA then distributed a list of measurement data via the “for authorities use only” web page USIE, which consequently appeared on the Russian geoenergetics.ru website. The latter is an energy news site close to Rosatom. Also immediately, all kinds of fake news stories started singing around in Russia. Ru-106 would come from Ukraine, or from Romania, or from a satellite that had returned into the atmosphere. Everything, but no incident in Russia.
Meanwhile, WISE received concerned messages from the Mayak area, among others asking whether the document on geoenergetics.ru was genuine. WISE contacted the IAEA, who referred it to the national nuclear authorities, in the case of WISE the Netherlands Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection (ANVS). WISE asked ANVS to compare the geoenergetics.ru document with the original, or provide access to the original document.
WISE also indicated the possibility to black out data from countries not covered by the Aarhus Convention (and therefore not obliged to release such data) – this concerned the “0” values of all Russian measuring points and a small number of Turkish measurements. Or to give the list in a different form. The ANVS refused to grant access, and also to check with the IAEA whether another solution could be found.
WISE then appealed to the Court of Amsterdam and from there to the Council of State.
There are two fundamental points for WISE:
- International emissions data must be available to the public under the Aarhus Convention. Only in this way could the people in the Mayak area have been able to put pressure on the Russian authorities in case the leaked list would have appeared to be manipulated.
- Under the Aarhus Convention, ANVS is required to proactively assist citizens in accessing such information and should therefore have contacted the IAEA.
In January of this year, WISE suddenly received from ANVS the surprising message that the IAEA had produced a public list of all measurement data, although this document is not available on the IAEA website.
Since then, WISE is in the process of comparing both lists (which have a different format). What becomes clear is that the geoenergetics.ru list is a mess. Almost a third of the reported measurements turn out to be doubled – sometimes with changed times, sometimes with values made 1000 times smaller. Especially measurements from Ukraine, Italy, and the Czech Republic. Romanian measurements appear to have shifted in time. Austrian, Serbian and Slovenian data appeared to have mixed up mBq and Bq. The crucial question now remains whether the IAEA is responsible for such a sloppy list, or whether it concerns Russian manipulations before it was leaked via geoenergetics.ru – possibly to cause confusion. Both cases are highly problematic.
WISE is happy with the decision of the Council of State to grant access to the requested information and make clear that authorities have to be pro-active in searching access to environmental information they hold from international institutions.