Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster: The Aftermath
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the most devastating avoidable mistake committed in the 1980’s. The mistake was so costly, in fact, that a radius of 1,600 square miles surrounding the former site of the power plant is uninhabitable. While the total number of lives lost and impacted is undetermined, thousands of cases of cancer are attributed to the radiation emitted from the remnants of the reactor. Twenty-three percent of Belarus’s former territory is now off-limits. The estimated cost of the cleanup is $235 billion and counting. While I can continue listing the horrifying effects of the disaster, I’ll instead focus on what happened and what we can learn from it.
What Caused the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster?
The Soviet Union invested in nuclear power following World War II. These investments led to the development of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station located ten miles north of Chernobyl. The power plant became fully operational in 1977. In April 1986, the night shift came in to perform a scheduled test of the reactors. They cut power to the plant to see whether the reactors could still be cooled. The night shift, having never performed the test before, failed to comply with numerous safety protocols. The botched test triggered a chain reaction, which caused an explosion powerful enough to blow the lid off the power plant. Nuclear material spread throughout Europe, exposing millions of people to elevated radiation levels. Let’s break down the key takeaways, so we can avoid another Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
1. Empower employees to disregard their superiors’ foolish orders.
Anatoly Dyatlov was the nuclear engineer responsible for overseeing the safety tests on the night of the Chernobyl disaster. Dyatlov had a reputation for his authoritarian management style and refused to be questioned. As the tests progressed with a series of errors, the sleep deprived supervisor ordered they nevertheless continue. A young, well-educated engineer named Leonid Toptunov mistakenly cut the plant’s power output during the test. His basic training suggested he discontinue the test, but Dyatlov threatened him and urged him to keep going. Unfortunately, Toptunov listened to his supervisor, which ultimately led to the explosion.
2. Never cut costs at the expense of safety.
There are two main design flaws that were implemented in the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station in order to cut costs. First, the percentage of “enrichment,” or the percentage of uranium-235 in the fuel, was relatively low. Today, enrichment levels have increased to 2.4% from the initial Soviet design level of 2%. This is expected to reduce the tendency for power bursts to occur in the presence of steam bubbles. Fuel that has increased enrichment levels is, of course, more expensive. The initial cost cutting measure made the reactor more volatile.
Second, the reactor designed by the Soviets was moderated with graphite. While the first nuclear reactor made at the start of the Manhattan Project was also moderated with graphite, nuclear reactors have since been built more safely. Graphite moderated reactors are prone to accelerating chain reactions. Steam bubbles tend to build up, which prevents cooling water from slowing neutron activity. This differs from reactors used in the West that are moderated by water, rather than graphite. Graphite is also combustible, which is why nuclear material spewed out of the reactor’s core for multiple days after the explosion. Had the Chernobyl plant been designed like those built in the West, the plant explosion would have been contained. After all, the Three Mile Island disaster had far less of an impact than the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
3. Administer training to those performing tests requiring expertise.
As mentioned above, the night shift responsible for performing the safety test at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station hadn’t received the required training. Their lack of training led to a series of errors that formed a catastrophic environment within the reactor’s core. Had proper training been administered, any one of the errors could have been avoided. It goes without saying that training is important, but it’s absolutely essential when lack of training can lead to catastrophe. Therefore, all personnel handling complex systems should receive both initial and ongoing training. Ignorance of any process or function comprising a complex system poses a threat to the safety of its operators and civilians. When the complex system is of the nuclear variety, the threat should not to be taken lightly.
4. Emergency personnel dispatched to clean up nuclear sites should be informed of risks beforehand.
The unsung heroes in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are those who were tasked with cleaning up the wreckage. The firemen dispatched to the scene immediately following the explosion didn’t know the fire was any different from those they’d put out before. The lack of knowledge, unfortunately, caused them to die early deaths. The Soviet government was content with sacrificing the lives of thousands of civilians responsible for containing the fallout. While these sacrifices were necessary, many of the personnel sent to Chernobyl were uninformed of the risks they were exposed to. There is no shortage of heroes that emerged in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It’s just incredibly important that individuals make informed decisions when contemplating the risks they put themselves in. It is only then that heroes can distinguish themselves from pawns.
5. Cover ups do more harm than good in both the short and long runs
The Soviet Union was reluctant to evacuate the population of Pripyat, the town neighboring the nuclear power plant, until Sweden detected elevated radiation levels emanating from Chernobyl. This reluctance caused cancers, autoimmune disorders, birth defects, respiratory illnesses, and a host of other medical complications to develop among the people of Pripyat. Moreover, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in 2006 that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was perhaps the reason why the Soviet Union fell. Attempts to cover up the severity of the nuclear explosion resulted in more harm, both physical and political, than good. Transparency is essential to the speed with which disasters are contained. History has proven that the extent of disasters will eventually be discovered, so it’s important to be up front from the outset.
It takes a horrifying disaster to bring about enormous changes. Chernobyl caused the Soviet Union to fall, nuclear power plants to become safer, and the global citizenry to recognize the impact of nuclear radiation. I recommend watching the HBO series Chernobyl, which depicts the story of the disaster in a gripping fashion.
The benefits we realize from nuclear power far outweigh the risks. It is, however, important we make every effort to mitigate these risks. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster is an object lesson in what happens when we fail to do so.
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