Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago was wake-up call for Finns
Fallout from explosion surprised decision-makers and frightened nation
Things are quiet in the monitoring room of the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) in Helsinki. Hannele Aaltonen can see all of the latest radiation readings from Finland and nearby areas on the database. The circles on the map of Finland mainly show green.
"If a gauge were to give an alarm, all monitoring devices in a 200-kilometre range would start sending information", Aaltonen says. In a real emergency, about 100 people would be dispatched to take measurements make reports, and otherwise deal with the situation.
When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded 20 years ago, the situation was different.
On Monday, April 28th, when STUK special researcher Tua Rahola began to investigate why radiation levels had risen around Finland, there was no information to be had.
"There was a strike by civil servants, and we had not been able to keep our own workers outside the action", Rahola, who is now a laboratory head, recalls. "Computers were shut down and we did not have enough basic information. Mail was not being delivered, and STUK did not even have a fax machine at that time."
Also, the First of May holiday was coming, and many were taking extra days of holiday.
The radiation level had risen the previous night at the Kajaani monitoring station, but it was a Sunday, and there were no attempts to investigate the cause.
"On Monday the reality finally started to emerge", Rahola says.
There was a call from Sweden, where there were suspicions that one of their nuclear power plants may have been leaking radiation. There was no information from Chernobyl.
"There was very little information, and the image of the situation was based on our own observations", Rahola says. She did not have time to feel frightened, because she had her hands full dealing with the measurements. Radiation samples were taken from the air, from filters, from rain water, food, reindeer moss, grass, and people. The media also had to be informed.
The readings indicated that there was no need to take special measures to protect the population. The late spring helped; cows had not been yet let out to pasture, so there was no danger that milk would be contaminated.
The situation was nevertheless a shock and a disappointment. "This kind of thing was not supposed to happen", Rahola says.
At the Ministry of the Interior, Janne Koivukoski, who was then an acting planner at the ministry, was shocked. "This kind of an accident was simply not possible", he says.
The fear spread with the rumours. When officials gave assurances that there was no danger, there was speculation in newspapers about whether or not milk was safe to drink, and lettuce safe to eat, or if rain water could be used for making food, or if it was all right for children to play in sandboxes or puddles.
The government was accused of being slow and secretive. When Finland did not join the other Nordic Countries in calling on the Soviet Union to give an official explanation of what had happened, it was seen as yet another example of Finlandization. The decision on a fifth commercial nuclear reactor for Finland was set back 15 years.
"Chernobyl turned into an information disaster", Koivukoski says.
"At the time, accidents were seen mainly as a matter for officials to deal with. Since then, cooperation with journalists and the means of disseminating information developed tremendously."
Chernobyl was also a turning point in crisis management. The accident changed administrative structures and ways of thinking. "Previously, only a war or a similar crisis could have lead to actions affecting the whole nation", Koivukoski says.
The Ministry of the Interior instituted constant monitoring in the summer of 1986, and the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority followed suit in early 1987.
"Finland was well prepared for domestic accidents. Chernobyl taught us that we had to be prepared for the effects of accidents taking place abroad", Hannele Aaltonen says.
New planning was instituted, and instructions for dealing with the aftermath of nuclear explosions were revised. Research on how radioactive substances behave in the environment progressed by leaps and bounds. International cooperation increased.
Currently the readings from monitoring stations vary according to natural background radiation. Spots marked with red circles indicate areas where the radiation level has risen because of factors including radon gas, but the emergency level is not exceeded.
If the radiation level rises in Finland, or for instance on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland (where Sosnovyi Bor, the oldest Chernobyl-type reactor, is still in use), the gauges will automatically send a message to the person on duty, who is required to take action in 15 minutes.
"Currently no situation is too small for it to be investigated", Aaltonen says.