Jimmy Larsson

Murmansk: Visiting Kola Nuclear Power Plant

Murmansk Day 3
When Gunnel offered me an iodine pill, I said yes. We were having a short break on route to the Kola Nuclear Power Plant located in Polyarnie Zori. About 220 km south of Murmansk. We all took a pill, just in case. Except Tim and Anna. They were not as hyped as the rest of us. Or worried. Anna had lived all her life in Murmansk. And she felt comfortable with the security at the Kola Nuclear Power Station. Like most other inhabitants of the city of Murmansk. She was also definitely an expert on the energy subject. And Tim was from Kiruna. And on top of that, very laidback and easy going. He didn´t come across as awfully worried about a possible death by a nuclear explosion. Or a drawn-out death by radiation. The group had visited the Central Heating Power Plant in the morning. But our minds where set on the nuclear power station visit. Even though, the reception at the Central Heating Plant in the morning was as the previous day. Open, warm, informative and very interesting.
Why this nervous hype as regards to the Kola Nuclear Power Plant?
In my case, three reasons.
First of all, pure curiosity. Joy, excitement and a new experience. Someone asked me before my trip, why in earth do you want to visit a nuclear plant? Because it is there I answered. Just echoing the British Climber Sandy Irwine. He answered when a journalist asked him why he wanted to climb Everest. And I want to know about the full workings of life. And, also, what does a nuclear plant look like? And is it safe or not? Who is working there?
And, secondly, as we all know, if things go wrong, it is dangerous! Human beings and nuclear is for me us humans playing God. And I remember Harrisburg, Forsmark and more recent Fujiyama. And of course, the worst disaster of them all, Chernobyl. And with the HBO series Chernobyl out and popular right now, there´s a reason to have worrisome feelings. I am happy I didn´t see the series before the visit. I have seen it now and I understand Gunnel´s worries! But she did decide to come. As the rest of us. And I also wanted to find out, by seeing with my own eyes, how safe is it? Should I be worried or not?
The third reason is climate change. And our future energy resources. I guess some could claim that nuclear energy is both renewable and clean. If we figure out what to do with the waste. And humans stop doing mistakes. How is the Kola Nuclear Power Station dealing with these issues?
About half way we passed the nickel town of Monchegorsk. Gunnel had been there 20 years earlier and had described a perched landscape. Though she added it could have changed in this time. I knew from my Kolyma Expedition, how fast the taiga can recover. At least for the human eye. And once we got out of the minibus and walked up to a viewpoint, yes, even the area around Monchegorsk had recovered. But it was still like a disaster zone. For me. Just seeing those large chimneys spewing out smoke was a terrifying sight. I was expecting Terminators showing up any second. Huge amounts of sulphur dioxide, heavy metals and lead contaminate the air here. All three bad for human beings to inhale. Hell on earth for sure. But then I remembered the heroic Soviet paintings at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. My last visit back in 2016. For some Soviets, this was beautiful! Man defeating nature. I guess in some ways, a view like this might still be beautiful for some. Monchegorsk and the nickel factory is owned by Norilsk Nickel. Which is the largest producer of nickel and palladium in the world. So the money is there to do a better environmental job. It oozes money, power and quick solutions. Shameful to see. From the road, the area and the town were spread out. And like the Kola Nuclear Plant we were heading for, the workers generally lived in the nearby town. In conjunction with the plant.
As quick as we arrived at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, tensions rose. An employee met us at the bus and with stealth in her voice, and nervousness, told us to stay in line. One by one and don´t step out of line. The very chatty, intelligent and warm Marina was the only one who dared to step out of line. And was reprimanded for doing this. The plant looked very modern and secure from the outside. A big digital screen was showing a Hollywood style promotional film about the plant. Happy families and renewable resources in one. Just as in Soviet times! Possibly encouraging for both visitors and workers, I presume. Employees at the Nuclear Plant had generally better wages. I mean than other jobs offered in the neighborhood. Which makes sense.
We were as always warmly welcomed. Since the minute we arrived, we could take no photos. But we were filmed and photographed by employees. The plant had their own media, TV and newspaper. On every visit an employee had taken photo of us. Since they all smiled and joked, I am sure it was only for marketing purposes. Ah, Jimmy, who had a press visa was allowed to take photos and record. A very cool, laidback fella who didn´t say a lot. He came from Oskarshamn and he had visited his local nuclear plant. Oskarshamn’s Nuclear Power Plant. He said that he during that visit got as far as viewing the reactor through a small and thick window. If we understood right, we would be able to enter the reactor room on this visit!
Let me add before I continue the story about our visit. For me, this visit was on the verge of impossible. Just consider the political and global situation. There´s signs of a new cold war coming up. Threats, arms race in the beginning, trade wars, nationalistic leaders and so on. And two weeks earlier some kind of a nuclear blast happened in the Archangelsk region. Which Russian authorities doesn´t want to deal with as regards to what happened. Like in the Chernobyl case. Trying to behave like nothing has happened. None of anybody else’s business. With the result that the Western powers are upset! In this unstable time, we get invited to visit a high security nuclear plant. Which on one side is a great opportunity. And on the other side, I think this is the right way to deal with the situation. Openness! And also the great work of Anna and Tim. Would the New York Times and the Guardian get this access? At this time?
Well, at least we hoped to get into the reactors. Reactor 1 and 2 was down for maintenance, so we would visit 3 and 4. Reactor 1 was the oldest and many observers from the outside believe it should have been shut down. A long time ago. But it is still running.
First of all, we were given instructions, military style, keep in line, don´t touch anything! Which we all fully accepted. We were also given helmets, a hair cover (for those of us with hair) and then we were marched to the security gates. Security was of course very high. There was a military presence. And it took time to go through the check-in. Especially for Jimmy with his camera. But we all got through to the other side. There were 5 or 6 security passages. And many well-dressed workers passed through quickly. With big briefcases. Obviously, security has to be good. Our company guide this time was a short military style disciplined young lady. She had steel in her voice. And with an over intellectual manner. Her twin sister was there for a visit, which caused some confusion. Men and women were separated. We guys were taken by a friendly and jolly fella to a changing room. Where we donned ourselves in three layers of white cotton cloth. And shoe sizes had been taken earlier, our cloth sizes too, so it was a perfect fit. Very professional! We guys all seemed very happy and looking forward to this visit. Such a lovely positive group!
“I don´t like the fact that we don´t have hand covers. Or a facemask”, Gunnel said when we met up with the ladies: “This worries me.”
We passed another check-in and security passage. We were each given a Geiger counter to check the radiation level. For me, it all was like being part of a science fiction movie. Kind of dreamlike, we followed the guide one after one in an straight line in the perfect walk way. I felt like a robot. We met workers heading the other way. Straight in line, straight faces. It must have been great filming this scene from above I thought. Like Charlie Chaplin´s film The Great Dictator. Robots in line. But of course, it has to be like this. Nuclear is no joke!
The whole floor in the reactor room 3-4 was steel. Walking on it was odd. So hard. Dead. I looked around in awe. I saw a couple of rooms on each side with small window lookouts. And like a moving passenger vehicle underneath both those insulated rooms. If things went wrong, the help is through there. Jimmy got chastised by the extra guy we had with us, checking everything we did. Tough guard at this time, but a wonderful fella afterwards. He did his job. He didn´t want Jimmy to film and move, only stand still and film. It made no sense at all. But Jimmy stood still. My reaction to being in the reactor room was this:
“This is amazing! What an experience!”
And I felt safe. Everything felt under control. For now. Because when we asked the over intellectual guide about this. What could go wrong in a place like this. She answered:
“A human mistake.”
This Q&A session was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The guide brought up the issue with the HBO series Chernobyl. People had seen it in Russia and were scared stiff of nuclear power stations at the moment. Gunnel added:
“But it is the truth!”
“Yeah, yeah, the truth can be many things. It is a filmed series and we who are involved in the nuclear atmosphere knows what really happened.”
“But you must understand that people are scared!” Gunnel continued with normal Stockholm passion.
“People are scared of many things. Cockroaches, rats and so on.”
There´s no doubt the young lady knew her job. But treating visitors and their worries with contempt is never a good idea. We did learn a lot. Like that fact the Kola Nuclear Power Plant was the first and largest nuclear plant above the Arctic Circle. Back in 1973 when the first reactor unit was ready. So yes, the first reactor is old. It supplies 60% of the region with power. It has 5 safety barriers in case of emergency. And is therefore one of the most regulated of nuclear power stations in the world. They got all their uranium from Russia and spare parts from Ukraine. She added they got along well. They have had one incident, nothing serious.
“And what about the waste?”
“We store some here and we are working with a solution.”
The guide then said we had to move on to keep the times scheduled. As you will see below among the links, there are other facts out there. We returned back to our changing rooms. After having tested if we had picked up any radiation, by sticking hands and feet in a machine. First a simple one, later a more complicated, full body one. I saw on one of the simpler one´s that I had 3.5 on my left foot. It was deemed safe.
Once out on the other side, in normal clothes, we were offered food and Tim did a good interview. It is all about building bridges of understanding. With a positive attitude. I adhere to that!
Do I feel more positive towards the nuclear solution today? I have to say it is such a complicated issue. I understand it offers work opportunities. And if it works with no problem, e.g. human mistakes, it is a energy solution. We humans are hungry consumers of energy. But, I fear playing God like this, ain´t a good solution for the future. I think there´s a huge degree of alarmism towards nuclear solutions. Finding alternative energy resources, like wind, water and sun is a much better solution . We need to get rid of fossil fuels as soon as possible. And it seems like the waste management of nuclear waste is still just a very unproven solution. But as regards to a Russian Nuclear Power Station situation, yes, I feel safer today. They are crude, simple and not as modern as the Western ones. But I say this without ever haven seen one outside Russia. But I do trust Russian engineers more than Western ones. Because I have seen how they can fix airplanes in ways Western pilots cannot! And, of course, I have been given a much bigger perspective of it all. Like the dangers of radiation. Check the links below for radiation levels.
Again, I´d like to note the openness shown by inviting foreign journalists. I know through Tim that when he tried to give Russian journalists the same treatment in Sweden. It was a no. Sad. Trust is important. Jimmy also told us this: In Oskarshamn he could only film and take photos on the outside. , Here it was the other way around. Indeed odd. At times life is odd.
But, no, I am not for nuclear power. Personally. And I don´t like all the mayonnaise used in all the food in Russia either! Or the eternal sugar in everything! But I do like the Russians a lot!
On route back to the hotel, we came across a deadly car accident. And I realized how short life is. Get out there and live to its fullest! I told myself. Hmmm, 3.5 in radiation on my right foot. It feels warm. Or not?
Kola Nuclear Power Plant in Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kola_Nuclear_Power_Plant
Charlie Chaplin´s the Great Dictator https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Dictator

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