How a Bellona report got swept up in a squall of fake news about a secret nuclear meltdown

radioactive symbol Radiation symbol. (Photo: Nils Bøhmer)

Early this month, Bellona’s General Director and nuclear physicist Nils Bøhmer wrote a short work-a-day analysis of a small leak of radioactive iodine 131 that occurred back in October at Norway’s Halden research reactor, and posted it on the organization’s website.

The next day, Bøhmer awoke to find himself portrayed as a lone hero thwarting a pan-European conspiracy to hush up a Fukushima-level radiation emergency.

His report soared up the ratings in Google, eclipsing all but three other returns for a search on “Halden Reactor.” The phone started ringing. Facebook exploded. Comment requests flooded the inbox of Ellen Viseth, Bellona’s press officer.

Outside, according to reports still bubbling on the Internet, a radioactive cloud darkened the skies over Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain. Someone had sabotaged the web-based European Radiological Data Exchange Platform to make sure no one knew about it. The Norwegians were shredding readings on the leak, and the International Atomic Energy Agency was helping them by flat-lining their own suspiciously peaking radiation graphs.

What had Bøhmer unleashed?

halden-reactor-0 Inside the Halden Reactor. (Photo: Institute for Energy Technology)

In the following days, Bellona saw his piece become rocket fuel for a tin-foil-hat wearing intrigue society who used it to buttress the case that a serious nuclear accident had occurred on the Norwegian-Swedish border ­– and that someone was trying to shut it up, none of which was true.

Theories that appeared on several Russian news sites ­– and were further stoked at the nuclear-news.net blog – drew on two actual and separate events that were insignificant on their own, but when combined swirled into a more sinister brew.

In January, a sensor in Svanhovd northern Norway picked up a minor spike of radioactive iodine 131 in the atmosphere, which was subsequently corroborated by the French and the Finns. The spike posed no danger and resembled a similar iodine uptick that had occurred in 2012. That one was traced to a medical isotope manufacturer in Budapest, but the more recent one remains – at least officially – unexplained.

Enter the Halden Reactor, which on October 25 experienced a small release of iodine 131 during a fuel treatment procedure. Staff were evacuated temporarily and the leak was contained. The only thing rising to a level of serious incompetence was the lag time between the incident and when the Institute for Energy Technology, which runs the reactor, informed the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority.

The leak got the attention of The Independent in Britain and NBC news in the US. Both did minor reports that focused on the institute’s failure to report it right away, which Bøhmer said was a shocking lapse.

Atle Valseth the institute’s research director issued a mea culpa: “It’s wasn’t good enough,” he said, that his institute sat on the information for a day.

It was, however, good enough for Russian reporters, and a few European ones, to solve the riddle of the iodine that blew over Europe in January: The Norwegians were to blame and they were contriving to hide it.

“The source of radioactive iodine emissions that was recently discovered over several European countries came from the Halden Reactor,” crowed one Russian blogger at Trashbox.ru. “The international environmental organization Bellona says so!”

This report was confirmed by the Infosila.ru newswire, which promoted the incident to a full-scale accident and again misrepresented what Bøhmer wrote. The English-language ENEnews energy newswire contributed pot stirring of its own, publishing a sort of word cloud report highlighting the direst phrases it could glean from Bøhmer’s analysis – “Damaged fuel,” “radioactive release,” “evacuated immediately” – in scary boldface type.

All three reports failed to mention the physical impossibility that one event could have followed the other: iodine 131 has a half life of eight days, so any of it that came from the Halden Reactor could hardly have been lingering over Europe two and a half months later.

the halden reactor The Halden Reactor. (Photo: Bellona)

The nuclear-news.net portal conceded that point in early blogs on the Halden incident, but the site continues to push hit jobs on the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority. On Sunday, European News Weekly, which published by nuclear-news.net’s editors, ran an angry and lengthy comment by one Pierre Fetet, who cited data from CRIIRAD, an independent nuclear research group based in France. CRIIRAD , for its part, said in a statement that it wishes people would stop misrepresenting its studies of the Halden event.

Fetet piece accuses the Halden reactor’s operators of releasing radioactive “clouds,” says the release should qualify as an “accident” on the INES nuclear incident scale, and concludes that Norway’s nuclear regulators are in cahoots with Halden’s operators to contaminate Europe.

“Wow,” thought Bøhmer. He hadn’t said any of this.

CRIIRAD has since boxed Fetet’s ears over his assertion that the Halden incident qualified as anything near an accident on the rigid INES scale, and Fetet spent several hand-wringing hours in correspondence with Bellona trying to walk his words back. He’s since convinced the editors of European News Weekly to delete his reference to an “accident” scale event, and retracted it from his French-language blog as well.

To be sure, the incident at Halden raises some serious questions. The fuel error, Bøhmer wrote, led to a hydrogen build up in the reactor core not unlike what occurred in 2011 at Fukushima. There were concerns that the core of the reactor might become unstable. There were worrying issues with the reactor’s cooling system.

But none of it led to a meltdown, and no available evidence suggests that any contamination came of it.

As nuclear-news.net itself suggests, Sweden would surely have had strong words for Norway if any of radiation from Halden had come wafting into its territory.

Bellona has long said that Halden’s operating procedures are not ideal, and even less ideal are the Institute for Energy Technology’s clogged lines of communication with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority. There are questions, certainly, to be asked, and the operator must be held to account.

But asking those questions should not be done from the vantage point of the most extreme of speculative fever. These fevers – in the zeitgeist of the fake news era ­– ­ will continue to run hot, and there’s little one can do to disprove them but to look outside and ask: Is this landscape really contaminated by iodine 131? That’s certainly not what Bøhmer’s original report said.

Should a meltdown come to pass, Bellona promises it will be the first to tell you.

 

 

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no