Lab in Hungary the source of 'mystery' radiation which swept across Europe
A Hungarian manufacturer of medical radioactive substances was 'most probably' the source of increased radiation levels measured in several European countries in the past weeks, the U.N.nuclear agency said last night.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement that it had received the information from Hungarian nuclear authorities, adding the measured levels of iodine-131 were 'extremely low'.
'There is no health concern to the population', the IAEA said.
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Jozsef Kornyei, director of the Budapest-based Institute of Isotopes Co.,said that the firm first noticed the heightened release of iodine-131, used in the treatment of thyroid disorders, 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 this month.
Kornyei said 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.
Citing weather factors and the very low radioactivity of the iodine-131 released into the atmosphere, Kornyei said it was 'extremely unlikely' that the leak at the Budapest plant was the cause of trace levels of iodine-131 measured in several European countries.
The IAEA was initially notified about the higher iodine-131 levels by the Czech Republic on November 11.
Similar reports came later from Austria, Slovakia, Germany, Sweden, France and Poland.
A letter sent Thursday to the IAEA by the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority said the cause of the higher radioactivity was under investigation, albeit hampered by administrative difficulties.
Outbreak: Unusual levels of iodine-131 have been detected in the Czech Republic and northern Germany
'Unfortunately, in Hungary the licensing and surveillance of the nuclear facilities and the laboratories using high amounts of radioisotopes are in the hands of different authorities', the Hungarian nuclear watchdog said.
'The communication problems we faced in the present situation call our government's attention for an improvement and simplification of our regulatory system', it said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog, said it did not believe the radioactive particles were from Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant after its emergency in March.
Professor Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics at Britain's Royal Berkshire Hospital, said any link with Fukushima was extremely unlikely.
'It is far more likely that the iodine may be as a result of excretion by patients undergoing medical treatment.
'Whilst such patients are carefully controlled, some release of iodine into the environment may be inevitable but would certainly be well below any limits where health detriment would even begin to be an issue for concern,' he said.
The Czech Republic's nuclear security watchdog said it had tipped off the IAEA after detecting the radiation it thought was coming from abroad but not from a nuclear power plant. It suggested it may come from production of radiopharmaceuticals.
Germany's Environment Ministry said slightly higher levels of radioactive iodine had been measured in the north of the country, ruling out that it came from a nuclear power plant.
Blameless: The Fukushima explosion is not believed to be the root cause for the increase in iodine-131 levels
Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Sweden also reported traces at very low levels that did not pose a health risk.
Experts said the origin of the radiation - which has been spreading for about two weeks - remained a mystery but could come from many possible sources ranging from medical laboratories or hospitals to nuclear submarines.
Iodine-131, linked to cancer if found in high doses, can contaminate products such as milk and vegetables.
Paddy Regan, a professor of nuclear physics at Britain's University of Surrey, said the suggestion that it may have leaked from a radiopharmaceuticals maker 'sounds very sensible and totally reasonable.'
He said since iodine was used in the treatment of thyroid conditions it was also likely that hospitals in many European countries would have it in their stores.
'It would be very unlikely for it to have come from Fukushima since the accident was so many months ago and iodine-131 has a brief half-life,' he said.
Iodine-131 is a short-lived radioisotope that has a radioactive decay half-life of about eight days, the IAEA said.
Massimo Sepielli, head of the nuclear fission unit of Italy's national alternative energy body ENEA said any number of sources could be to blame for the readings.
'It could be coming from the transporting of (nuclear) material, it could come from a hospital ... it could even come from a nuclear submarine, even if it's a more complicated possibility ... but you can't rule that out.'
Officials in Spain, Russia, Ukraine, Finland, France, Britain, Switzerland, Poland and Norway said they had not detected any abnormal radiation levels. Romania's watchdog said there had been no incident at the country's sole nuclear plant.
Austria's Environment Ministry said small levels were measured in the east and north of the Alpine country, saying the estimated dose level for the population was one 40,000th of the dose of radiation received in a transatlantic flight.
In the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, an earthquake followed by a massive tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima plant in Japan, causing a reactor meltdown and leakage of radiation, including of iodine.
In the days and weeks after the accident, tiny amounts of iodine-131 believed to have come from Fukushima were detected as far away as Iceland and other parts of Europe, as well as in the United States.
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