Could the Chernobyl Disaster have been Avoided?
If you’ve watched any of our other videos on the subject, then you know that April 26, 1986 was not a good day to be working at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the north of the Ukrainian SSR. Actually, that is an understatement. It was not a good day to be anywhere within the vicinity of Chernobyl, nearby towns, or even in a large part of Western Europe for that matter. As many are aware, the worst nuclear disaster in history occurred on this day when the number 4 nuclear reactor at the plant exploded. In the past, we made videos detailing the cause of the Chernobyl disaster, as well as its effects, such as the diseases that manifested and spread from the radiation, resulting in many Chernobyl victims. So, now, we seek to conquer the big question: are there any actions that could have been taken to prevent this disaster from happening in the first place?
How serious was the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster?
You probably already know from our other episodes on Chernobyl that the scale of the disaster was enormous. But just how big exactly? For this, we look to the International Nuclear Event Scale. This scale used to measure the rate of nuclear disaster is shaped like a triangle ranging from 0 for “deviation” at the bottom, 1 for “anomaly,” with increasing scores moving higher up the triangle as follows: “incident,” “serious incident,” “accident with local consequences,” “accident with wider consequences,” “serious accident,” and, finally, the seventh and deadliest score located at the summit of the triangle, “major accident.” It is here, at the very top, where the Chernobyl disaster ranks supreme in terms of severity. The only other catastrophe to rank this high, seventh on the scale, was the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. In terms of the amount of radioactivity and health impacts, however, Chernobyl was a much bigger accident than the one that occurred in Fukushima. Chernobyl was also an entirely man-made event, whereas Fukushima was largely caused by natural disaster.
What went wrong?
It is ironic that the Chernobyl disaster occurred during what was supposed to be a routine safety test. This test was meant to figure out if the reactor could still provide enough energy to keep the cooling pumps running after the loss of power and if they could be kept running until the emergency generator kicked in. Now, unless you’re a nuclear engineer, the exact mechanisms of action that lead to the Chernobyl explosion can be difficult to grasp. They are explained in further detail in one of our other episodes, “What Caused the Catastrophic Nuclear Accident in Chernobyl?” so we’ll keep this short. Basically, catastrophe struck after a span of 1 hour and 24 minutes of preparing and conducting the test. A powerful steam explosion and fire released an abundance of hazardous material, spewing deadly radiation into the environment, resulting in a toxic cloud spreading across Europe and even stretching almost as far as to touch the United States and Japan.
How did the USSR react to the disaster?
When the disaster at Chernobyl first struck, the Soviet Union made no immediate public announcement of it. Evacuations were urged in surrounding areas, but mostly maintained under secrecy in fear of international disgrace. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was, after all, considered a triumph of Soviet science, a symbol of industrial and technological prowess. Thus, the nation’s reputation was at risk following this massive failure. Attempts to keep the event quiet, however, were feeble. It was soon figured out that something was wrong when workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden found themselves setting off radiation alarms when arriving at work on the morning of April 28th. At first, they thought maybe their monitor was on the fritz, the alarm being due to faulty equipment. But, after further tests, they realized they were indeed covered in radiation from outside. A satellite also passed over Chernobyl and U.S. intelligence saw the image of the explosion, raising an initial alarm that the Soviets had launched a nuclear missile. The source of the contamination was soon discovered along with the Chernobyl explosion, and the Soviet Union was forced to confess, publicly admitting to the nuclear accident.
Did someone sleep on the job?
So, who or what is to blame for the disaster? Some claim that the workers at the plant are at fault while others believe the accident was the result of a flawed design. At any rate, factors from a combination of both could have been responsible leading up to the event. The real blame, however, may be attributed to poor management. According to livescience.com, the accident resulted from “incompetence, and was made even worse by misinformation and secrecy.”
The safety test was originally supposed to be conducted during the daytime when more senior engineers were on duty. This, however, would have meant shutting down reactors and causing an interruption in electricity supply. Thus, the safety test was postponed, scheduled to occur during the night shift while electricity demands on the plant would be at their lowest. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, the engineers working the night shift consisted of a junior team on the scene. Though qualified, these workers were very young for such a complex environment. Just to give you an example of their age, the turbine operator was only 29 years old.
Was it a case of human error?
It is said that the workers may have also been sleep deprived since working the night shift can often be hard on your mind and your body. As cited in Psychology Today, it is “not uncommon for [night] shift workers to develop psychiatric conditions” due to accumulated sleep deprivation. As many of us know, fatigue can also often lead to mistakes. So, it is possible that human error could have been at play with the combination of young workers performing the test into the late hours of the graveyard shift. This is not to say, however, that the blame should be placed squarely on their shoulders. They were just doing their job and doing it to the best of their ability while following orders.
Were there design flaws?
The way the reactor core was designed also made it prone to heating very quickly, too quickly. It got hot and it got hot at an alarming pace, too fast to handle. And, despite there being many complications during test preparations, the workers were ordered to go through with the test anyway. At 56 seconds before the blast, the 29-year-old turbine operator was ordered to proceed with shutting down the turbines to conduct the safety test. Energy levels then soared dangerously high and that’s when disaster ensued.
Was the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster avoidable?
So, now, how could this nuclear disaster have been avoided? Well, let’s first imagine a scenario with the safety test being conducted during the day as originally planned. There might have been a minor inconvenience with a temporary lapse of electricity. But, hey, at least this is better than the alternative of having to uproot and evacuate thousands of Chernobyl victims from their homes, right? So, the senior engineering staff would have taken the lead on operations. We’re assuming that they would have also been fresh on the day shift and alert. If anything went wrong, their many years of professional experience would kick in as they attempted to perform a balancing act with the levels of steam and heat in the reactor. But, let’s say for argument’s sake that the reactor was just as unstable as it was when the junior engineers took the lead in the events of our timeline. How would the senior staff have handled it differently? Maybe they would have been better at balancing the levels in the Chernobyl nuclear reactor from getting too hot and exploding… for now. Even so, that still didn’t eliminate the problem if there was indeed a flaw in the design. Though the senior engineers might have managed to avoid disaster this time, an impending accident may have been bound to happen at some point in the future, waiting for someone – anyone – to make a mistake. Now let’s go back and imagine that management is urging the senior staff to proceed with the safety test despite complications. The engineers know full well that doing this would be dangerous because there have been problems with the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. So, maybe, compared to the junior staff, the seniors more adamantly protest going through with it. They put their foot down and this is where the scenario could have deviated in one of two different ways. Management could have either responded by accepting the opinion of seasoned professional engineers while devising a different course of action, or they could be angered and continue to insist that the safety test proceed. In the former scenario, disaster may have been averted for the time being but simply delayed, destined to take place eventually unless the issues with the reactor were addressed. In the latter scenario, an explosion would ensue just as it did with the junior engineers in our timeline. In essence, there are many ways the actions of the team could have deviated, but it is also possible that the Chernobyl disaster would have still happened at some point. The reactor was, after all, unstable. So, unless this vital flaw was fixed in some parallel universe, Chernobyl could have probably been described as a bomb just waiting to go off at some point or another.
Did the USSR learn from the incident?
Frighteningly, Russia has never moved on from the incident and still maintains the same technology. As of 2019, there are 11 RBMK reactors still operational in the country. In order to prevent another Chernobyl-like catastrophe, more workers may need to be trained in nuclear science. The problem is that it takes a lot of time to train people. It can take two to seven years of graduate studies to become a fully trained radiation professional. Power plants also need a team of skilled and competent nuclear engineers, health physicists, reactor inspectors, risk managers, and communication specialists. Forming a team like this is not easy though and it is highly expensive. There has also been a downward trend in the number of nuclear professionals or people entering into the field. The NCRP anticipates severe shortages in these professions within the next 10 years and, thus, there are not enough new, emerging workers to replace the ones who will be retiring. These statistics are pretty scary if you think about it. Thus, the question of what could have prevented the Chernobyl disaster is an important one that could still apply for future accidents. In this case, learning from our past is essential.
Want to get an up-close look at Chernobyl today?
For those of you who are intrigued by Chernobyl’s history and its danger, you can visit as a tourist but we’d advise not sticking around for too long since scientists estimate that the zone won’t be habitable for another 20,000 years. Because of this, we don’t imagine it would be too good for your health to stay for long and who knows? You might just turn into a mutant. This is not plausible, of course, but we still wouldn’t suggest entering the grounds without a guide, someone to detect radiation levels and check if it’s safe to venture into certain areas.
Don’t trust the movies
A 2012 horror movie called the Chernobyl Diaries plays out a fictional account of young travelers engaging in extreme tourism, visiting Chernobyl sights. At the time of writing this, the movie has a low score on rotten tomatoes with 19% and a 5 out of 10 on IMDb, so it’s probably not the best choice in movies if you and your friends are looking to watch something of substance. Whether a horror movie like this should even be centered around a real life tragedy is a subject up for debate. But, since it is out there, we figured we’d check it out. Because, well, why not? One of our ambitious and most eccentric writers – who once thought of an idea for a movie theatre that allows you to bring your pet hedgehog – volunteered to be our guinea pig and watch it so that you don’t have to. For reasons we cannot even begin to fathom, she thought she’d like to try and follow in the footsteps of our least important writer who does most of our challenges. Even though she isn’t accustomed to watching anything scary in her normal routine, she insisted that she could handle it. This may or may not be a spoiler alert but, in the movie, the group of travelers encounter mutated creatures in the remains of ghost towns near Chernobyl and, like any horror movie, characters get picked off one by one. Upon completing this very small challenge, our writer had this to say:
“The Chernobyl Diaries was very jumpy and had me on the edge of my seat with adrenaline. Thankfully though, it was pretty forgettable by the next day. It’s not like the time I was peer-pressured into watching the first episode of The Walking Dead by my devilish friends only to be scared out of my wits for weeks on end. To this day I still can’t turn a dark corner without thinking I see zombies. Yikes! I think I’ll return to my fluffy rom coms and childish cartoons just to recover for a little while… At least until the Infographics Show throws something else my way.”
So, what do you think? If you could go back in time and do something to avoid the Chernobyl disaster, what would you do? Also, have you seen the Chernobyl Diaries movie and did you think it was any good? Let us know in the comments!