France has stopped shipments of chanterelles from Belarus because they have been found to contain radioactive cesium. Photo: iStock

Diners in France have probably already ingested their share of radioactive mushrooms. One of the most popular fall and early winter mushrooms is the chanterelle and today they are an expensive treat. As they grow in the wild and are hard to cultivate, the supply is limited. France imports them, mainly from Russia and Belarus, but the French authorities have stopped shipments of chanterelles from Belarus because they have been found to contain radioactive cesium. Quelle horreur.

These days there are at least two unnaturally high levels of radioactivity getting into Europe’s food supply. The worst is cesium and it is believed that most of that is the remnant of the Chernobyl disaster. It is found in foods including wild boars from Scandinavia. Wild boars, in case you didn’t know, are both a nuisance and dangerous. But they have one redeeming quality: many people enjoy wild boar roasts and sausages. In the case of northern and central Sweden, the wild boar enjoy eating local mushrooms, and as a result they are contaminated with Cesium 137. Other wildlife affected in Sweden include reindeer, which is a popular food.

Cesium 137 is a nuclear reactor byproduct that is formed from the nuclear fission of Uranium 135 (which is enriched uranium). Cesium 137 also is a byproduct of nuclear weapons. The recent Fukushima disaster and other nuclear accidents, most notably Chernobyl, have been the source of copious amounts of nuclear waste that includes large releases of Cesium 137. Equipment contaminated with Cesium 137 has been on the illicit junk market for years (most of it originating in Kazakhstan but tracing to the Soviet period). Most of the equipment was bought by wannabe nuclear countries and terrorists with the idea of using Cesium 137 in dirty bombs.

Cesium 137 is a dangerous radioisotope. It has a half life of 30 years and when it was released into the atmosphere at Chernobyl along with other radioactive elements including Cesium 134, Strontium 90 and Iodine 131 it also contaminated the soil and water supply. Cesium 137 happens to be water soluble, so it can affect waterways of all kinds or be carried in rain. After the cloud from Chernobyl was released, the Soviet Air Force seeded rain clouds to try and get the rain to precipitate over non-populated areas. The rain that did fall was black in color. Many areas of Belarus remain dangerously contaminated today.

But this was by far not the only accident in Russia. One of the worst nuclear accidents in history was at the Mayak nuclear reactor in the Soviet Union. Between 1945 and 1948, the Soviets assembled their own secret nuclear reactor to produce Plutonium. Called the Mayak (Lighthouse) reactor, the rapidly constructed complex was accident prone with many operational problems and radiation leaks. The worst of the “accidents” is known as the Kyshtym disaster, named after a storage tank area in Kyshtym, which exploded on September 27, 1957.

The Kyshtym explosion, like other incidents of its kind, was covered up by the Russians and not known outside the Soviet Union until 1979, and even then the full extent of the disaster has never been admitted by the Russians. It is known that the explosion destroyed more than two dozen villages and contaminated a vast area. The explosion fallout path rendered Lake Irtysh and the Techa river unusable and exposed some 470,000 people to radiation. Some 45 to 55 persons died almost immediately and many others would die later from cancers and radiation linked diseases.

The French suspect that the latest detection of high levels of Ruthenium 106 is coming from the area where Mayak is located.

Ruthenium 106 is used in satellites, radioisotope thermoelectric generators and for medical applications. If it occurs alone then it didn’t happen because of a reactor explosion, however it can be released in the atmosphere when fuel rods are being loaded in a reactor.

The Russians are claiming that the recent release of Ruthenium 106, coming from the southern Urals is a result of a disintegrating satellite in the atmosphere, a theory the French initially suspected but found it did not correlate with any known satellite in the area. The evidence either points to new trouble at Mayak, which continued operating after 1957, or from a secret military satellite that could not be observed. Mayak denies this is the case and says it is not producing Ruthenium 106.

If you have a preference, it is strongly suggested that your steak au poivre and chanterelles best be contaminated with Ruthenium rather than Cesium. Not that there is any difference in flavor, but there is a correlation with the likelihood of survival.