18 February 2012

1986: Chernobyl

The Chernobyl disaster - and a rise in radiation levels across Europe. Poor old ignorant me was caught out in a downpour just after it happened and, with the knowledge that there was a radiactive cloud somewhere overhead, and also having heard that rain was a good carrier of radiation, I wondered if my snorkel parka, which I always hung behind my bedroom door, would be glowing when I turned out the light and got into bed.

That may sound humorous - but I kid you not!

Breaking news - from The Times, 29 April, 1986:

Huge Nuclear Leak At Soviet Plant

Alert 1,000 Miles Away In Sweden After Moscow Admits Casualties.

A massive radioactive leak at a Soviet nuclear power station has caused casualties in what may be the world's worst nuclear accident. The leak was so large that it prompted a full-scale alert nearly 1,000 miles away in Sweden, including the evacuation of 600 workers from a Swedish power station on the Baltic coast.

Finland reported radiation levels six times higher than normal. Denmark five times higher than normal, and Norway 50% up as a result of the accident. "We have registered radiation just about everywhere we have looked," said Mr Ragnor Boge, of the Swedish Radiation Institute.

Soviet atomic energy authorities at first told the Swedish Embassy in Moscow they were unaware of any nuclear accident on Soviet territory that could cause a leak to reach Sweden.

But later Tass reported that an accident had taken place at a nuclear power station at Chernobyl, north of Kiev, and there were some casualties.

It said measures were being taken "to eliminate the consequences of the accident" at the plant, where a reactor had been damaged. Aid was being given to those affected by the leak, it added.

Swedish scientists at first believed a leak had occurred at their own nuclear plant at Forsmark, on the Baltic coast about 60 miles north of Stockholm, and evacuated the 600 workers there. After the evacuation radiation levels were checked at other areas of the country, including the capital.

These all confirmed a higher degree of radioactivity than normal, and further tests at Forsmark led the Swedish authorities to conclude that the discharge had come from the Soviet Union.

Some Swedish nuclear experts said they believed the Soviet accident was caused by the overheating of nuclear fuel. A "considerable explosion" would be the result of such overheating and could have led to a "meltdown" of the nuclear core at the reactor, they said.

The Swedish energy minister, Mrs Birgitta Dahl, said all Russian nuclear reactors should be placed under international control.

"We must demand that [the] Soviet Union improve their security and inform the rest of the world of such accidents in good time," she said.

The first stage of the Chernobyl nuclear plant was put into service in September 1977, followed by two more stages in 1980.

A government committee of inquiry has been set up by the Soviet Union into the accident, Tass said.

The Swedish Defence Ministry said an abnormally high level of radioactivity had been recorded on Monday afternoon by several monitoring stations in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

The ministry said that at a rate of "a few millirems an hour" the level was not thought high enough to warrant the evacuation of the local population at Forsmark. It would not be a danger to human beings, although regional specialists said the level was twice as high in Finland as in Sweden and Norway.

A millirem is a unit of ionizing radiation that gives the same biological effect as one thousandth of a standard unit of X-rays.

MOSCOW: Tass said the accident was the first of its kind in the USSR (Christopher Walker writes).

Since Mr Mikhail Gorbachov [sic] came to power in March 1985 there have been repeated calls in the Soviet Union for more open reporting of disasters within the Soviet Union.

The Tass statement was seen as a quick propaganda move ordered by the Kremlin to counter any international criticism of safety measures taken inside the Soviet Union, which has traditionally surrounded details of its nuclear programme with secrecy.

Abandoned villages: There was a serious nuclear accident in the Soviet Union during the winter of 1957-58, according to a report published in February 1980 by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee (UPI reports).

The report said the contamination covered between 40 to 400 square miles. It said there was "some loss of life" and at least 30 villages were abandoned, their names subsequently deleted from Soviet maps.

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