Lack of Safety Culture That Contributed to the Chernobyl Disaster
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Final ProjectLack of Safety Culture That Contributed to the Chernobyl DisasterJames EdgarSouthern New Hampshire UniversityOL-500 – X1340 Human Behavior in OrganizationIntroductionOn April 26, 1986, a catastrophic explosion occurred in reactor #4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Kiev Ukraine.  This explosion was the result of an uncontrolled power increase in the reactor core and is blamed primarily on poor design and insufficiently trained personal.  Two plant workers died in the immediate explosion with about 30 more dying within a few weeks due to a variety of radiation related illnesses. Official reports initially blamed workers’ lack of experience and adherence to safety regulations but could there have been a larger intuitional problem that favored politics over safety? What were the lapses in safety protocol that contributed to the accident?  If a different safety culture had existed could the largest nuclear accident in history be prevented? Did the disaster force a change in safety culture within the Soviet Union? The Chernobyl Nuclear Power facility is located in Ukraine approximately 81 miles north of Kiev and about 12 miles south of the border with Belarus. The complex used four Soviet designed RBMK-1000 reactors using U-235 uranium with graphite rods to control the nuclear reaction to heat water and create steam to drive turbines to generate electricity.  As more heat and steam is produced by the water, the core becomes more reactive unlike reactors in Western nations which use the steam bubbles or “voids” to reduce the reactivity. (World Nuclear Association, 2014)  American physicist and Nobel laureate Hans Bethe has called the RBMK reactors “fundamentally faulty, having a build-in instability” (Rhodes, 1993) which can cause a RBMK reactor to increase in reactivity if it loses its cooling ability under certain conditions and can run faster and hotter rather then shut itself down.  This is what happened on the morning of April 26, 1986.Dual UseSoviet philosophies regarding nuclear power production are rooted in the Cold War and sought to not only generate electricity, but to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.  (Gillette, 1986) Because of the way these reactors are constructed, they can be built quickly, without the need for steel pressure vessels and containment buildings required by conventional reactors.  Additionally, the design allows them to be refueled while in operation making it well suited for making weapons grade plutonium and tritium needed for nuclear weapons.  Because of the increasing demand for electricity in the Soviet Union at the time, and the on-going Cold War with the West, warnings from the international atomic energy community were ignored and construction proceeded. AccidentsIn 20 years prior to the Chernobyl accident there had been at least 10 serious accidents in nuclear power plants throughout the Soviet Union. (Medvedev, 1989) At the Chernobyl facility in September 1982 there was a rupture in the central fuel assembly of Unit 1 because of operator errors causing emission of radioactivity into the industrial zone and the City of Pripyat and causing repair personal to also receive a radiation overdose while making repairs. One of the most serious occurred a year earlier at another facility, Balakovo AES, during startup of a water-moderated reactor because of negligence and 14 people died. The accident is contributed to haste and nervousness after mistakes were made by the inexperienced plant operators.  (Medvedev, 1989) This is indicative of the safety culture of the Soviet Nuclear program.  Accidents like these were kept a secret and lessons learned were not shared within the Soviet nuclear community so that processes could be improved.

PropagandaSoviet propaganda touted the safety of their nuclear power plants.  A member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, M.A. Stryrikocich, stated in a 1980 interview in the magazine OGONEK, “Nuclear power plants are stars in the daytime! We are planning our entire earth with them. They are perfectly safe!” (Medvedev, 1989) The attitude was that nuclear reactors were simple to operate and required little skill by its operators. N.M. Sinev, deputy chairman of the USSR State Committee for Use of Atomic Energy used to give a popular explanation to the general public about nuclear reactors; “Atomic reactors are ordinary furnaces, and the operators controlling them are the stokers!” (Medvedev, 1989) Because of the increasing demand for electrical production there was increasing pressure from the upper echelons of the government to build them with seemingly little regard for safety.  There also seems to have been a general lack of even basic understanding (or caring) of how nuclear power worked and how technically involved it was.  LeadershipJust two months before the Chernobyl Disaster, on February 20, 1986 a conference was held at the Kremlin in Moscow, involving nuclear power plant managers and chiefs of power plant constructions projects. Each one in turn would give their speech about the status of their particular project and were consistently interrupted and berated by Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers B.Ye. Shcherbina as to why there were problems with their projects. One particular exchange was between him and R.G. Khenokh, chief of the Construction Administration for the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant. He announced that equipment delays would delay the startup of the plant from May 1986 to August 1986. He was met with sharp treatment by Shcherbina as shown in the following transcript of this meeting.“”Well, what do you think of that, what a hero!” Shcherbina exclaimed outraged. “He is setting his own deadlines!” And his voice heightened to a scream: “Who gave you the right, Comrade Khenokh, to set your own deadlines instead of those of the government?” “The deadlines are dictated by the way in which the work has to be done,” the construction project chief persisted. “Cut it out! You cant fool me! The government deadline is May 1986.  You will be so kind as to start it up in May!” “But delivery of the special fitting will only be completed at the end of May,” Khenokh rejoined. “Make the delivery earlier!” And Shcherbina turned to Mayorets, who was sitting beside him: “Take note, Anatoliy Ivanovich, your construction project chiefs are covering themselves with the lack of equipment and are not meeting deadlines.” “We will put a stop to that, Boris Yevdokimovich,” Mayorets promised.” (Medvedev, 1989)

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