Russian Nuclear Release Highlights Value of Technical Monitoring Say Georgia Tech Experts

New details of an apparent release of nuclear material in Russia in 2017 highlight the value of the technical monitoring schemes designed to detect and verify nuclear weapons-related activities globally, Georgia Institute of Technology experts said.
“This shows that technical monitoring is important and can work for non-proliferation efforts, such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement, also known as the Iran nuclear deal,” said Margaret E. Kosal, associate professor in Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. The School is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.
The release was first detected shortly after it occurred in October 2017. It has become a renewed topic of discussion after researchers published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) tracing the release to a remote site in Russia.
The paper makes use of extensive monitoring data to fix the location somewhere in the Southern Urals region, perhaps the Mayak nuclear complex, the site of a 1957 accident that forced the evacuation of thousands of people. Russian officials, however, specifically have denied that Mayak was the source of the 2017 release, according to news reports.

Investigation Shows Technical Monitoring Works

“From a science perspective, this is an excellent example of how nuclear monitoring for covert nuclear activities works,” said Steven Biegalski, professor and chair of the Nuclear and Radiological Engineering and Medical Physics program in Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. As a former director of Radionuclide Operations at the Center for Monitoring Research, Biegalski led international efforts to develop and put in place radionuclide effluent monitoring technologies that helped support U.S. capabilities and international treaties.
“Aerosol collection with high volume samplers followed by high-resolution gamma-ray spectrometry is a power combination that is used to detect emissions well below any health concern,” he said. “Combining the data collected at multiple stations across a continent over a multi-week period with atmospheric wind modeling allows researchers to specifically determine the origin of a release. In this case, this helped the international community learn about an emission that Russia appears to want to keep behind a veil.”
Questions about the effectiveness of such monitoring are often raised by critics of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and other nuclear-related treaties, said Biegalski, an expert in nuclear analytical methods, research isotope production, nuclear forensics, and nuclear non-proliferation. The United States signed the treaty in 1996 but has not ratified it.
The authors of the PNAS paper used details generated by different monitoring equipment than that used by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, but the technology is similar, he said.
“Events such as this provide a proof of technology that should be considered within the context of ratification of the CTBT by the United States and other nations,” he said. “We have confidence that this technology provides an impressive capability that may be utilized to monitor the world for nuclear emissions.”

Secrecy is Perplexing

Why Russia wants to keep the nature of the release secret is perplexing, Biegalski and Kosal said.
For instance, the release did not appear to be large enough to be a threat to human health outside of the immediate vicinity of the plant—certainly not anything on the level of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Kosal said.
“I’m not sure if it is possible that the release was so small as to not raise the red flag outside the plant initially. Or perhaps it did, and the Russians decided it was too low to report, despite international guidelines,” Kosal said.
“Maybe Russian leadership made the decision that it was not worth drawing attention to,” Kosal said. “With more favorable weather patterns, it could have blown away from Europe and reduced the likelihood of being detected. While I don't think it was a major or even minor part in this incident, ignoring the requirements to report is one more example of Russia failing to follow international norms and their intent to challenge the post-WWII international order. This further shows the importance globally-connected monitoring and data-sharing and cooperation.”

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Michael Pearson