A cloud of radioactive pollution over Europe in late September likely originated from a nuclear facility in Russia or Kazakhstan, the French nuclear safety institute IRSN said.
In a November 9 statement, IRSN ruled out an accident in a nuclear reactor, saying it was a likely leak in a nuclear fuel-treatment site or center for radioactive medicine.
In recent weeks, IRSN and several other nuclear safety institutes in Europe had measured high levels of ruthenium 106, a radioactive nuclide which does not occur naturally and is the product of splitting atoms in a nuclear reactor.
Because of its short half-life of about one year, ruthenium 106 is used in nuclear medicine.
There has been no impact on human health or the environment in Europe, said IRSN, the technical arm of the French nuclear regulator ASN, but it suggested random checks on food imports from the area where the cloud originated as a precaution.
The IRSN statement said it could not accurately locate the release of radioactive material but, based on weather patterns, it most likely originated south of the Ural Mountains, between the Urals and the Volga River.
This could indicate Russia or possibly Kazakhstan as the site of the origin of the cloud, IRSN Director Jean-Marc Peres told the Reuters news agency.
"Russian authorities have said they are not aware of an accident on their territory," Peres said.
Russia's state-controlled Rosatom nuclear energy corporation said last month that it hadn't come from its facilities or from Russian territory.
Representatives of Kazakhstan's Nuclear Physics Institute in Almaty told RFE/RL on November 10 that there were no nuclear leaks detected in Kazakhstan in September and October.
Officials at the Kazakh Institute of Radiation Security and Ecology in the town of Kurchatov, in the East-Kazkahstan region, said Kazakhstan does not have facilities from which ruthenium may go into the air as the result of an accident.
The institute in Kurchatov used to be the center of operations of the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Polygon and is currently working to monitor nuclear safety.
Measurements from European stations showed high levels of ruthenium 106 in the atmosphere of the majority of European countries at the beginning of October, with a steady decrease from October 6 onwards.
Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection said last week that elevated levels of ruthenium were reported in Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and France since September 29, but posed no threat to public health.
ISRN said ruthenium releases could come from the re-entry of a satellite into the Earth's atmosphere, but the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that no satellites powered by ruthenium re-entered the atmosphere during the time period.
IRSN estimated that the initial quantity of ruthenium 106 released was major, and that if an accident of this magnitude had happened in France it would have required the evacuation or sheltering of all the people in a radius of a few kilometers around the accident site.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Reuters, AP, and www.dw.com