Chernobyl haunts engineer who alerted world

April 26, 1996
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UPPSALA, Sweden (Reuter) - Swedish nuclear engineer Cliff Robinson was puzzled when the radiation detector went off as he tried to enter his office at the Forsmark nuclear power plant early in the morning of April 26, 1986.

Startled by a second alarm, he checked the radiation levels of a shoe and could not believe his eyes. Readings had soared and there were signs of radioactive substances never seen at Forsmark before.

"My first thought was that a war had broken out and that somebody had blown up a nuclear bomb," he told Reuters in an interview. "It was a frightening experience and of course we could not rule out that something had happened at Forsmark."

Robinson, first into the plant that day, immediately informed his boss. The alert that went out from Forsmark was the first the world heard of the emergency.

It quickly became clear the source of the menace was to the south-east. But it was almost three days before Moscow admitted a reactor had exploded at Chernobyl power station in the Ukraine.

A cloud of radioactive dust was snaking out across Europe.

"It was a horrid experience, especially since so many people died because of Chernobyl," Robinson, now 40, recalled.

"I will never forget the events that day, they are much clearer to me than any other day." he said.

"But I still don't think I am so interesting. Somebody had to go in first, the fact that it was me was just a coincidence."

Robinson, born of a British father and Swedish mother, had taken an early bus to work that day from his home in Uppsala.

"I had breakfast when I arrived and then went into the changing room on the way to the reactor area to brush my teeth.

"In order to get back into the office area where my job was, I had to pass the radiation detector. I was quite surprised when it went off," Robinson said.

Later that morning Forsmark employees were told to leave the premises but Cliff Robinson and some other staff stayed on to analyze radioactivity levels.

Forsmark, a small industrial community, is located 75 km (50 miles) northeast of Uppsala, Sweden's fourth largest city.

"A routine thing uncovered a horrid catastrophe in the east," Forsmark plant spokesman Lennart Fransson told Reuters.

The plant employs 850 people and supplies around one sixth of Sweden's electricity.

Fransson said routine checks at Forsmark later led to cooperation between various authorities in Sweden and the other Nordic countries.

"It was a major puzzle trying to sort out from where the radioactivity was coming. We could not rule ourselves out for a while," Fransson said.

But later in the afternoon on that day Forsmark got a clean bill of health from Sweden's National Nuclear Inspectorate as wind-borne nuclear pollution from abroad was confirmed by reports from Nordic nuclear monitors.

The disaster led to strict routines at the Forsmark nuclear station, Fransson said. "We had to have shoe limits outside for months afterwards. People put on shoe covers outside before going in. It was kind of strange as the levels outside were so much higher than the levels inside," he said.

Robinson, who today works at Uppsala University, says his life was changed through the events.

The anniversary of Chernobyl around the world on Friday was marred by a new radiation incident at the plant on Thursday.

Chernobyl spokesman Oleg Goloskokov blamed the incident on careless work practices and said contamination caused by a spillage of radioactive dust had been cleaned up overnight. There was no threat to the environment.

The Forsmark plant, however, does not plan to commemorate the day. "No, we are not doing anything special. It is business as usual," Fransson said.


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