Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time. Russia and the Ukraine held ceremonies to mark that terrible day.
What caused that terrible explosion? In Nuclear Renewal, Richard Rhodes writes the following:
Without question, the accident at Chernobyl was the result of a fatal combination of ignorance and complacency. “As members of a select scientific panel convened immediately after the…accident,” writes Bethe, “my colleagues and I established that the Chernobyl disaster tells us about the deficiencies of the Soviet political and administrative system rather than about problems with nuclear power.”
The immediate cause of the Chernobyl accident was a mismanaged electrical-engineering experiment. Engineers with no knowledge of reactor physics were interested to see if they could draw electricity from the turbine generator of the Number 4 reactor unit to run water pumps during an emergency when the turbine was no longer being driven by the reactor but was still spinning inertially. The engineers needed the reactor to wind up the turbine; then they planned to idle it to 2.5 percent power. Unexpected electrical demand on the afternoon of April 29 delayed the experiment until eleven o’clock that night. When the experimenters finally started, they felt pressed to make up for lost time, so they reduced the reactor’s power level too rapidly. That mistake caused a rapid buildup of neutron-absorbing fission by products in the reactor core, which poisoned the reaction. To compensate, the operators withdrew a majority of the reactor’s control rods, but even with the rods withdrawn, they were unable to increase the power level to more than 30 megawatts, a low level of operation at which the reactor’s instability potential is at its worst and that the Chernobyl plant’s own safety rules forbade.
At that point, writes Russian nuclear engineer Grigori Medvedev, “there were two options: increasing the power immediately, or waiting twenty-four hours for the poisons to dissipate. [Deputy chief engineer Dyatlov] should have waited…But he [had an experiment to conduct and he] was unwilling to stop…He ordered an immediate increase in the power of the reactor.” Reluctantly the operators complied.
Read an excerpt from Nuclear Renewal.
But maybe the cause was even worse than “ignorance and complacency.” There’s a book called How Good People Make Tough Choices, by Rushworth M. Kidder. It’s a book on ethics, but the author describes the Chernobyl incident in the beginning of Chapter 2.
In March 1989, three years after the event, Kidder was one of the first Western journalists allowed at Chernobyl. Here’s what he wrote about it:
The story I heard that March Monday—from some of the Soviet engineers who had been called in just after the explosion to help clean it up—was not only a tale of physical catastrophe. It was, in the end, the story of a moral meltdown. It was a tale of a lapse in conscience so profound as to compel us to rethink the role of ethics in contemporary society. It was the story of two electrical engineers working into the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, at the control panel of Reactor Number Four. Without any real authority—or so the Soviet authorities later reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna—they decided to see how long the turbine would freewheel when the power was removed. So they began shutting down the reactor. To do so, they had to override six separate computer-driven alarm systems. The alarms kept flashing signals up on the screen—the Russian equivalents of Stop! Go no farther! Reverse course! Refusing to shut down the experiment, they switched off the alarms. When the cleanup crews got into the facility sometime after the explosion, they found valves padlocked in the open position to prevent them from automatically shutting down in a fail-safe mechanism that might have prevented the disaster.
The Chernobyl meltdown has been blamed on a “mismanaged experiment,” and “inexperienced operators.” But what if Kidder is right? What if it was a “moral meltdown?” What if it was just two guys taking a risk, just to see what would happen?
The exact circumstances are unknown, because according to Wikipedia, the men involved died of radiation sickness.