March 01, 2006

Chernobyl: Anatomy of a Disaster



The problems at Chernobyl began long before 1986, as David Marples writes in the introduction to nuclear engineer Grigory Medvedev’s book on the Soviet nuclear industry, No Breathing Room: “Several scientists at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy expressed concern about the RBMK [the type of graphite-moderated reactor at Chernobyl] in the early 1970s. More than thirty design flaws were reportedly uncovered, but none was corrected before the reactor first went into service. At least one official was dismissed for trying to draw attention to these defects.”

Remarkably, as Marples also reports, just prior to the Chernobyl disaster, in the spring of 1986, journalist Lyubov Kovalevska penned an article for the weekly paper of the Ukrainian Writers Union, Literaturna Ukraina, in which she pointed out flaws in the plant’s construction and called the station “an accident waiting to happen.”

The accident occurred on April 26, 1986, during an otherwise quiet weekend. Unqualified technicians were conducting a bizarre and unnecessary experiment that, had they know the reactor’s built-in flaws (it does not operate safely at low power), they would not have ventured. When the experiment spun out of control through a series of incompetent decisions, every attempt to control the nuclear reaction worsened the situation, until the engineers desperately tried to reinsert the fuel rods in a last ditch bid to slow the reaction. This was the final fatal error, because the rods were constructed in a way that ended up accelerating the reaction and leading to a massive explosion.


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