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A Radioactive Nightmare Fueled by Bureaucracy

For those of us who remember the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, HBO’s recent miniseries of the same name served as a horrifying reminder. Even if you don’t remember the event, I can’t recommend the series enough.

Source: Roberts Vicups / shutterstock

The elements of the series that weighed heaviest on me were the willful ignorance and the celebrated incompetence that led to the disaster, slowed the response, and magnified the damage. Going back more than a decade before the disaster, the initial reactor design was faulty. In fact, Soviet reactors never had containment buildings, which are standard in Western facilities.

The disaster occurred during a test. The test materials given to the control room crew had instructions with some items crossed out. The chief engineer on duty was 25 years old and had 4 months’ experience. When the reactor exploded, the plant officials not only refused to believe it but also refused to even look. When word reached Soviet officials, they took no action to evacuate the local population. Only when a monitor in Sweden recorded abnormal levels of radiation did the Soviets make a grudging admission that a problem existed (a problem that was, in fact, the worst nuclear disaster in history).

Denying and Finger-Pointing While the Earth Burned

Watching the control room immediately before and after the explosion was gut-wrenching. Supervisors and managers rejected every objection or caution before the test. Instead of considering the advice, they used threats to force submission. After the reactor blew, plant management refused to accept that the reactor core was exposed or that radioactive graphite littered the area and insisted that subordinates carry out useless measures that had no hope of success. Instead, these measures ensured death.

Behind closed doors, plant management had zero interest in the scope of the disaster or in formulating a proper response. They preferred to assign blame at the most convenient level, tried to ally themselves for self-preservation, and painted a rosy picture for their subordinates.

Don’t Be Like Chernobyl

Clearly, this is no way to run any enterprise, much less a nuclear power station. The miniseries, though, offers a number of scenes that we should all consider. For example, I wager that anyone reading this post works at an organization that prohibits retaliation by policy.

However, think about the scene in the first episode when the senior control room manager threatens a subordinate who is (rightly, it turns out) challenging the manager’s decision; the manager growls that he’s not sure he can do much to help his subordinate, but he can make it much worse for the man. Even if you have a policy against retaliation, can you imagine a similar scene playing out among your own people? If so, the policy alone isn’t enough, and you have more work to do.