Friday, April 26, 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl

by Adam Higginbotham

This book is a retelling of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, and its effects on the people and landscape around it. It is presented as a narrative, and is based on the translation of several Russian books on the topic, interviews with the survivors, and evidence which has been preserved in the Chernobyl museum in Kiev.

The book starts with the selection of what was initially a forested site in a Ukranian backwater, and describes the building of the plant, the construction of the futuristic atomic town of Pripyat, the disaster, cleanup activities ,and further health and career trajectories of the people who were involved in the meltdown of reactor number 4 at the V. I. Lenin nuclear power station exactly 33 years before this post went up.

Chapter two, which contains a brief introduction to the science behind the nuclear power station, was not clearly written and contained a few glaring errors. This put me off for a while. After all, I’ve encountered Chernobyl science in a few forms over the years. The meltdown resulted in molten uranium oxide (the fuel) and zirconium oxide (from the zirconium fuel rods, after they combusted) melting its way through the concrete lower radiation shield of the reactor. As the melt assimilated concrete (which is sand and Portland cement), it gained enough silica that when it cooled, zircon crystallized as a major phase. Some of the SHRIMP labs in Europe were interested in analysing this “chernobylite” zircon, and asked us detailed questions when we built them their instrument. Additionally, we had a visit from several potential customers from the Kurchatov Institute, so it was interesting to learn about the organization’s role in the Soviet Nuclear Power system. However, I soon realized that the science was only a bit player in the disaster.

The nuclear power plant exploded because at 1:26 am 33 years ago, Leonid Tuptunov followed his checklist for shutting down the reactor, and pressed the emergency stop button. He was unaware that the reactor had entered an unstable configuration, or that the fuel rods engaged by the emergency stop would briefly increase reactivity before suppressing it- a brief increase that was long enough to a runaway nuclear reaction.

In other words, this was not a technological failure so much as a managerial and information handling one. And as such, it is very relevant to today’s scientific, technological, and governmental culture.

In recent years, I have seen a trend towards a butt-covering, information-poor, checklist-heavy, auditable approach to safety in various workplaces here in Australia- this is a departure from the deep knowledge, situational awareness, information-rich approach that I learned earlier in my career. So it was illuminating to see that this 150 billion dollar disaster was caused by a combination of information siloing, image management, and undereducating, along with the inevitable corner-cutting that unrealistic expectations produce. This book is just as relevant to those who want to prevent the next technological disaster as it is for history buffs interested in the previous one. I highly recommend it to anyone with these interests.


Chris Phoenix said...

Have you ever read a book called The Checklist Manifesto? I found it pretty convincing.

I'm all in favor of people having enough knowledge that they know when to deviate from established procedure. I'm in favor of those who have the knowledge and competence also having the authority to actually deviate.

However. In the many cases where established procedure is safer than omitting steps accidentally, a checklist can be a very useful tool - one of the best we've invented - for helping to make sure a disastrous accidental omission doesn't happen.

Also, I don't think it's fair to put all the blame on the person who took the final action, when others had taken other actions, without his knowledge, that made disaster inevitable rather than extremely improbable. Yes, it would have been great if he'd gathered all available knowledge and thought through the implications. But blaming him for not doing that is like blaming someone for turning on a light switch after someone else has filled the room with methane.

C W Magee said...

The book has a whole chapter on the trial and other repercussions.

The guy who pushed the button later died from radiation sickness, after wading through radioactive water to try to supply coolant to the core.

The plant director (who wasn't even informed of the test they were doing) took the blame like a good loyal Communist, and did years in a hard labour camp.

The people in the atomic energy agency, who knew about the power spike problem from a lesser incident in a reactor near Leningrad a few months beforehand but siloed the information were never held accountable.

I will look into the checklist manifesto.

C W Magee said...

I did not mean to denigrate checklists as a useful tool. However, I have heard of certain workplaces (not my current one) where they have allegedly been weaponized by management to shield the upper levels of the company from responsibility rather than to bring actual benefit to the workers at risk.