How Sweden exposed the Chernobyl catastrophe

If you haven’t seen the HBO series ‘Chernobyl’, do so. Probably one of the best series ever made, it depicts the events of the nuclear disaster that happened in the Soviet Union in 1986 killing up to an estimated 200,000 people (ref Greenpeace). It’s a vivid reminder of the perils of nuclear energy, and highly relevant to the growing debate in Sweden about the expansion of this form of energy production.

The series is directed by Swede Johan Renck, and stars many Swedish actors such as Stellan Skarsgård. However, what I didn’t know was how important Sweden’s involvement was in the discovery of the disaster.

Here’s how, taken from the European Parliament news page:

The alarm sounded at Forsmark, Sweden’s second largest nuclear power plant, when one of the employees passed one of the radiation monitors on his way back from the restroom. When it showed high levels of radiation coming from his shoes, staff at first worried an accident had taken place at the power plant. However, a thorough scan discovered that the real source of the radiation was some 1,100 kilometres away in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl.

The early detection by the Forsmark plant, one hour north of Stockholm, played a crucial role in forcing Soviet authorities to open up about the disaster that happened in Chernobyl in April 1986.

Thanks to the power plant’s early detection, they could inform the Swedish authorities at an early stage, who then told the world about the radioactive pollution coming from the disaster in the Soviet Union.

Today, most harmful materials have decayed. But some harmful materials, such as Caesium and Plutonium, will remain in the environment over a longer period of hundreds, even thousands, of years, though at lower levels.’

Sweden was affected in other ways by the radioactive cloud that blew from Ukraine across the Baltic. Still today, people in the north of Sweden are dying of cancer brought on by exposure. As recently as 2017, hunters found a pack of wild boar containing more than 10 times the safe level of radiation.

In Norway, the levels of radioactivity have reduced over time but there are still exceptions. Most recently in 2018, values detected in meat and milk suddenly doubled. The reason turned out to be an unusually widespread crop of mushrooms that year. Fungi have the ability to absorb a lot of radioactivity, up to 1,000 times more than plants. Those yearly variations mean that there will be a need for control for many years to come.

Thanks to its geographical location, Sweden played an important role in the revealing of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. But it also paid a high price, the effects of which will still be felt for generations to come.

Today, Sweden has 8 nuclear power plants producing about 40% of the country’s energy. This is despite a national referendum that voted to phase nuclear energy out by 2010. In 2015, decisions were made to phase out four older plants by 2020.

The constant question is can a disaster like Chernobyl happen again? And are we willing to take that risk?

One thing is for certain, the Chernobyl disaster showed us all that pollution has no borders.

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