When Eerika Häkkinen was young, she used to carry a “Nuclear, No Thanks” -badge with her wherever she went. Later she began to study chemistry at the University of Helsinki, and thought that majoring in radiochemistry would be a great way to come up with more informed arguments against the technology – but by the time she finished her studies, her outlook on nuclear power, and radioactivity in general, had quite changed.
Eerika is a good friend of mine, and her story was influential in making me view nuclear power and radiation risks in a more nuanced way. I wished to share some of those perspectives with you, and Eerika kindly agreed for me to interview her.
Eerika at a glance
Eerika is a maths and chemistry teacher in a high school in Kuopio, in the Finnish lake district. She holds a Master’s degree in radiochemistry, and her thirst for knowledge has resulted in several years worth of additional studies, in topics such as didactic maths, environmental physics, environmental sciences, animal sciences, and pedagogical studies. Eerika is also a horse-breeder, a Master-level riding-instructor, and an author of two non-fiction books about riding.
The three major topics of interest continually change in priority: teaching has always been a big part of her life, the subjects ranging from practical topics like leather-craft, horsemanship, or breeding genetics, to subjects of pedagogy, leadership, and natural sciences. Whenever she’s coaching a new foal toward the life of an adult horse, however – whether by teaching them to pull a carriage, competing in show jumping, or training them to fetch a ball as well as their grandmother (Gretna Green, aka Riina) – then her family of horses takes the front seat. But she keeps returning to natural sciences for those amazing, larger-than-life moments, when you can really understand how something in the world works – that’s when she thinks that it’s science, that really rocks. Below you find the translated interview of Eerika, with some of my comments included in [brackets].
Why did you choose to study radiochemistry?
When it was time to decide which type of chemistry I would choose for my major, I kept excluding choices I wasn’t interested in, but radiochemistry always survived the cull. The subject didn’t have many students, and the atmosphere at the institution seemed very motivating: there was real hands-on work done there, and the students were involved in the ongoing research projects in the department.
And then there was the little fact that when I was starting my chemistry studies, Chernobyl had just exploded.
What were your thoughts on nuclear power?
When I was young, I used to carry this big orange sun -badge on my backpack, the kind that says “Nuclear, No Thanks”. I didn’t have much information about it, it was just the general idea that nuclear was something really horrible and scary. But no one really knew much about it.
Nuclear was just something you were supposed to be against.
After a while, I realized that there were not many other things in my life where I was OK basing my view on just a gut feeling, however. I had been an anti-nuclear, ‘greenie’, hippie for such a long time, and I thought well, I should really learn more about it, so that I could make more informed arguments against it.
How did those views change?
As my studies progressed, little by little I became more uncertain whether nuclear power was such a bad thing after all. By the time I took part in the research on the long-term storage of nuclear waste, and worked in the environmental monitoring of nuclear plants, I was quite convinced that nuclear was not at all as threatening as one may think.
That view has strengthened over the years, even after I finished my Masters degree in Radiochemistry, later, when I went to study Environmental Physics at the University of Kuopio.
I came to view nuclear as a very sound option for energy generation.
In fact, once I was phoned up by salesperson from an electricity company, who wanted to offer us a switch to “green” electricity. He explained that it included wind, water, and solar power, but NO nuclear power. I told him that I would immediately switch electric companies, if they could offer me an option of using 100% nuclear power.
What were the most influential moments during your studies?
Visiting the caverns of the Olkiluoto nuclear waste repository was really interesting. The place was impressive. The radioactive waste is very thoroughly packaged, encapsulated, and encased in bentonite, and placed in a cave deep within the bedrock. There are multiple levels of protection. But still, I wondered if there could be some way, somehow, that things could go wrong. What if the waste would leak out from its casing and into the bedrock?
I was involved in the research on the storage of nuclear waste to study just that. I used three pulverized rock materials – it’s difficult to insert the radioactive solution into the rock in the lab, and instead we insert the rock into the solution. We tested radioactive sample solutions of uranium, neptunium, and plutonium separately. Each solution was mixed with the rock material and left to incubate for a few days. When we returned to measure the level of radioactivity in the solution, well. It was no longer radioactive.
All radioactive material had been absorbed by the rock. None was left in the liquid phase. So really, should there be a leak from the containers in the repository, the common sense conclusion from my perspective as a student of radiochemistry, was that the radioactivity would not actually get anywhere – it would just bind to the rock.
That’s when I started thinking: maybe these guys really know what they are doing.
It was so concrete. All the radiation in the sample was just gone. Like, what on earth happened here? Where did it go? After a hypothetical leak, the only thing that could move the radioactivity around in the bedrock is groundwater. But radioactive materials won’t stay in the water. They bind to the minerals in the rock.
What was the topic of your thesis?
The detection and mapping of the presence of 210-lead and 210-polonium in humans. Both are breakdown products of radon, and radon in turn is derived from the decay process of uranium. The topic relates to nuclear energy in the context of uranium mining. But there is also radon present in the ground in many places naturally, derived from deposits of uranium. Especially in Finland, our ground contains a lot of uranium. In some uranium-rich areas, building guidelines dictate that construction firms take protective measures to avoid radon levels rising to dangerous levels in the indoor air.
You also had a summer job at irradiation control. What did you do there?
Yes, the Institute of Radiochemistry was doing irradiation analysis for the Finnish Customs. Finnish rules forbade import of irradiated foods – I’m not sure what the situation is now, perhaps it’s allowed for some spices and teas, but still, the goods must be labeled.
What did that entail? Did you measure radioactivity?
No, not radioactivity. If a food has been irradiated, it does not become radioactive.
Instead, we try to detect whether the food has been exposed to radiation. Foods are irradiated to improve shelf-life [by killing bacteria], but the treatment can’t make them radioactive – the same way that having an x-ray won’t make you radioactive. But since irradiation of food was not allowed, we needed to check whether it had occurred.
It’s a little bit like this: you have an apple. You hold the apple under a lamp for a moment, and then take it away. Now, are you able to prove whether the apple had spent time under a lamp? If a foodstuff has been exposed to radiation, there’s a way to verify that.
How does that work?
Almost all foods are contaminated with sand. The method is based on thermoluminesence [how certain mineral crystals emit light when heated]. When the grain of sand is heated up, it emits a certain spectrum of light. We measure it, then we irradiate the sand, heat it up again, and make a new measurement. If the spectra are similar before and after, then the food has been irradiated. If the spectra are different, the original material has not been exposed to radiation.
Spices have a lot of sand, and it’s also very easy to find in shellfish – in their intestines. It’s harder to find on strawberries, and frog legs were almost impossible! But I was able to find some sand, on the basis of which I had to send a container full of frog legs back to France. I detected that they had been irradiated using only two grains of sand – just visible with the naked eye. With so little material to work with, I was relieved to get the confirmation later that the frog legs had indeed been irradiated, and they had just failed to report it.
That didn’t stop us from eating rest of the sample frog legs with good appetites.
How do radiation professionals view the risks associated with radioactivity?
It is taken very seriously. We’re always conscious of it. You sort of have to make it into this invisible bogeyman for yourself, in order to remember the risks, because it’s something you can’t see, smell, or taste. It’s sort of ‘not there’, although it is. But the protective measures, when working with radiation, are really very good.
Do you think views on radiation differ a lot between people who work with it, and the general public?
You bet they do. The person in the street does not really differentiate between radiation and radioactivity. We all have some low levels of radioactive materials in our bodies, and so we all emit radiation, to some degree, thanks to radioactive materials derived from our natural surroundings. People who eat a lot of mushrooms, freshwater fish, or reindeer, emit more than those who don’t.
And people who smoke cigarettes, radiate most of all.
I find it strange that there are people who are vocal against nuclear power, want to protect the rainforests, buy organic and what have you, but who nevertheless… smoke cigarettes. The tobacco plant [whose cultivation contributes to deforestation] actually takes up and accumulates polonium from the soil. Smokers radiate a lot more than non-smokers, because polonium is carried in the smoke to the surface of the lung epithelial cells, and from there absorbed into the body. According to one study, looking at things from a radiation exposure point of view, smoking one pack of cigarettes per month was more dangerous than working in an uranium mine.
[Another study finds that uranium miners who smoke cigarettes have an incidence of lung cancer about 10 times higher than nonsmoking miners (Lundin et al., 1969). For more about tobacco, polonium, and cancer read here.]
Would you say that the average person has a realistic view of radiation?
Haha… well, what do you think would help make that view more realistic?
A better understanding of natural sciences would of course help, but most of all what is crucial is to learn how to critically evaluate sources of information. To know that sensationalist media and fake news are not worth the time of the day (like Magneettimedia, Mitä vittua-lehdet).
Proper understanding starts with a critical evaluation of sources.
[Amen to that!]
To conclude, what are your views on nuclear power today?
I consider nuclear energy to be an absolutely sensible option. It is ironic that people easily accept a coal plant, smoking away, spreading radioactive materials into the wind, but not a nuclear power plant, where radioactive materials are only released into the environment in the case of a maximal mistake. Nuclear power is a good thing, but it should of course be in stable hands. If the entire social structure has collapsed or is in chaos, the situation could be dangerous. As it is, especially after accidents such as Chernobyl, nuclear safety specifications are really so tight, that I’m not worried about nuclear power.
I would go and work at a nuclear power plant, if there was one nearby.
For more on the topic of nuclear energy, you can read My Story over at Mothers for Nuclear, or my piece on Energy Solutions in a Changing Climate. If you would like to ask a question or have a discussion in the comments below, you are very welcome, but please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:
- Be respectful.
- Back up your claims with evidence.