Panic gripped many in the city Wednesday after rumors spread that a serious accident had happened at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Station (LAES) in Sosnovy Bor, a town 70 kilometers west of St. Petersburg.
The power station operates four Chernobyl-type reactors and has a history of minor accidents.
Hundreds of people stormed local pharmacies, emptying stocks of iodine, while teachers in kindergartens and nurses in some hospitals shut windows in fear.
Internet forums overflowed with “eye witness” accounts of the first victims of radiation poisoning arriving at hospitals, and a radioactive cloud moving toward the city at speed.
But in a rare case of agreement between environmental groups and officials, LAES’s managers and independent ecologists said the rumors were false.
The Emergency Situations Ministry distributed an official statement Wednesday saying that LAES is operating as usual and there were no abnormalities in the radiological environment.
Dmitry Pulyayevsky, head of the Sosnovy Bor city administration, branded the propagation of rumors of the accident as “information terrorism.”
“The rumors were distributed with astounding skill: the plotters apparently called kindergartens and medical institutions with warnings, perhaps introducing themselves as representatives of security services,” he told reporters.
Pulyayevsky said residents of Sosnovy Bor reacted skeptically to the rumors.
“Most of them are in some way connected to the station, and knowing it well, they are capable of adequate judgement,” he added.
Galina Pavlova, a local PR manager whose parents — both physicists — live in the town of Sosnovy Bor where the station is located, called them in panic on Wednesday afternoon, after hearing rumors about an accident.
“Friends were calling all the time to tell me about the rumors and asking if it was true,” Pavlova recalls. “Everyone was really agitated, and I did not know what to think.”
Pavlova’s parents, who do not work at the nuclear power station but have numerous friends there, reassured her.
“They said that the rumors were groundless and untrue, and no one was leaving Sosnovy Bor or taking iodine, including themselves,” Pavlova said.
Other St. Petersburgers had no such reliable source of information and hundreds called local media outlets and environmental groups to find out more about the incident.
It is unknown whether the incident was a deliberate provocation or the result of a misunderstanding.
“Some people could have seen, for example, a regional exercise carried out by the Emergency Situations Ministry and got it wrong,” said Vladimir Asmolov, deputy head of Rosenergoatom, the national nuclear power stations operator. “The sight of paramedics dressed in full gear can potentially serve as an impulse for rumors like this.”
The Sosnovy Bor prosecutor’s office is investigating the case and is looking to establish who, if anyone, orchestrated the hoax.
“We started checking the facts immediately after receiving the first phone calls and have not established anything yet,” said Rashid Alimov of the environmental pressure group Bellona.
Environmentalists at Green World, an ecological organization that focuses on monitoring LAES and is located in Sosnovy Bor, said radiation levels remained normal and no evidence of an accident was seen.
Activists from the local branch of the international environmental organization Greenpeace said their members have checked radiation levels both in Sosnovy Bor and in various parts of the city, and found no deviations.
But the ecologists found it suspicious that the original source of information has been impossible to establish.
“The people who rang us sounded very scared but they weren’t able to tell us where exactly the information came from,” Alimov said. “We were told very vague things, like ‘someone called a kindergarten’, ‘someone at the Pavlov Medical Institute said it’.”
In the meantime, Bellona said they are determined to get to the bottom of the case.
“We must establish if there was any fact that could have been misinterpreted or distorted to spark the rumors,” Alimov said.
The ecologist said that in 2005 a similar panic was caused by an explosion at Ecomet-C, a private enterprise situated in the power station which processes radioactive waste. Three people died in that accident.
“Minor incidents are relatively common at the station: on May 15, the plant’s safety system automatically closed down one of the reactor blocks, which shortly resumed its work,” Alimov said.
In order to establish the truth, Alimov called for an independent investigation.