Thursday, April 28, 2011

Nuclear options

We’ve been having great weather in Helsinki recently, unseasonable warm for so early in the year.  Highs this past week have been in the mid- to upper-teens (mid 60s Fahrenheit), approaching summer-like weather.  In that respect, it's eerily reminiscent of the pleasant weather we had 25 years ago today.  April 28, 1986 was, like today, nicer than usual for late April, thanks to warm winds blowing from the south.  It was so warm, in fact, that my future wife and I opened the windows of our downtown apartment to enjoy some fresh air, something we wouldn’t usually do until a month or so later. 

Normally, I wouldn’t remember anything so mundane as having a window open on a particular day, especially a quarter of a century ago, but there’s a good reason this detail has stuck in my mind.  After all, that was the day the news broke that elevated levels of radiation had been detected in Finland and Sweden, levels apparently high enough to raise some concern.  Everyone was advised to stay indoors and keep their windows closed.  We promptly shut ours, ending our premature fling with mild springtime air. 

Chernobyl's core on fire.
The announcer on the evening news explained that the source of the radiation was a mystery since officials in both Finland and Sweden had confirmed that their nuclear power plants had suffered no accidents or leaks.  The obvious suspicion was that the radioactive fallout was coming from the Soviet Union, spreading into Scandinavia on the prevailing southerly winds.  The Soviets, naturally enough, were denying knowing anything about it.  But even before the news anchor was able to move on to the next story, he was handed a fresh bulletin with the news that Moscow had indeed owned up to a nuclear mishap having taken place on its territory. 

Over the next few days and weeks, the story behind that alarming spread of radiation slowly emerged, as the horrifying catastrophe at an obscure place called Chernobyl came to light.  The worst nuclear accident in history had begun on the previous Saturday, a full two days before the warm air coming from the south had enticed us to open up our windows.  For two days, no one on this side of the Iron Curtain (except perhaps the CIA) knew that, 1045 kilometers (650 miles) to the south from my apartment, the devastated hulk of a nuclear reactor in the Ukrainian Republic of the USSR was spewing radioactive cesium and iodine into the atmosphere.

Interestingly enough, 650 miles is only slightly further than the distance between Three Mile Island, the site of America’s own worst nuclear accident, and Athens, Georgia, where I was living at the time.  Though both alarming, the difference between that 1979 accident and the one seven years later is that there was only a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and no massive explosion rupturing the plant’s containment structure.  And, oh yes, unlike Chernobyl, TMI actually had a containment structure, which apparently was a small luxury that the Soviet designers, in their wisdom, had decided to forego.  Consequently, the release of radiation from TMI was minuscule by comparison.  

Still, Three Mile Island was scary enough at the time to add a little extra fear factor when I saw the movie China Syndrome soon afterward.  In that movie, Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon go up against the corrupt builders of a nuclear power plant to uncover defects in the reactor that threaten to cause a deadly core meltdown.  Lemmon pays for this with his life.  I recall that, with the reality of TMI fresh in our minds, it was a relief to emerge from the theater and find the streets of Athens still calm and apparently radiation free. 

In the all-too-real drama of Chernobyl, the disaster was far more sinister and the immediate safety of those of us in Europe far from certain.  My mother tried to reach me by phone for a day before finally getting through on the jammed lines.  Despite being the first non-Soviet territory to be raked with Chernobyl’s fallout, shifting winds meant that Scandinavia got off relatively lightly compared to more distant countries like France and Germany.  The parts of Ukraine and Belarus closest to the blast suffered misery that wouldn’t be fully known for years. 

The accident, bad as it was, didn’t seriously dampen Finns’ commitment to nuclear energy (though that’s far from unanimous).  This seems even more remarkable considering that half of the nuclear reactors operating in Finland in 1986 were built by the Soviets and were of the same basic design as Chernobyl.  However, the Finns are not fools, and had insisted on extensive modifications to the reactor design, not least of which was a containment structure. 

After years of living here, I’ve become quite sanguine (or you might say complacent) about nuclear energy.  In a cold country with large demands for electricity and few renewable sources of energy, nuclear power begins to look surprising green compared to the other options.  Finland’s four reactors generate at least 25% of the country’s domestic electricity production, roughly equal to that from coal- and gas-fired power plants.  Though the ongoing catastrophe at Fukushima probably gives everyone here pause, plans for a fifth reactor are going forward.  While the prospect of another horrendous meltdown is only one stupid mistake, design flaw or natural disaster away, it helps to think (and hope) that they remain relatively rare.  

1 comment:

  1. That was indeed a horrible event. Chilling to me that you were so close to it.