At 9:02PM on Monday evening, 28 April 1986, a 20-second announcement was read in Russia, on the TV news programme Vremya..
Earlier that morning, Cliff Robinson, a worker in the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, had just gone to the restroom which was on the border between the controlled and uncontrolled areas of the plant. On his way back to the locker room, he had to pass through a radiation detector. He set off the alarm, surprisingly, since he had not even been in the controlled area of the plant. He went through a few times and on the third try, the radiation alarm did not go off. Initially he thought it was a detector error and continued his day, monitoring radioactivity within the power station. The next time he walked by the detector station, there was a long line of workers waiting – the alarm kept going off for all of them and nobody could get through.He immediately borrowed someone’s shoe and placed it in a radiation detector. The spectrum he saw showed high contamination and many radioactive elements that weren’t in the cooling water at the plant..
As Robinson double-checked and confirmed that the plant’s own chimneys weren’t leaking radiation, he heard another alarm – this time a warning to evacuate the plant. He stayed behind and analyzed the samples since he didn’t see any evidence of problems at the plant, only evidence that the surroundings were contaminated. He promptly called the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority and confirmed with them that the radiation was not emanating from Forsmark. Correlating reports from other nuclear plants, they mapped the radiation amounts and the wind direction and realized that it came from the Southeast. Swedish diplomats quickly contacted Moscow. Soviet officials denied the possibility of a nuclear accident. Sweden pressed them on the answer, and mentioned that they would be shortly filing an official alert with the International Atomic Energy Authority. Soviet officials finally admitted that there was an accident in the Chernobyl nuclear reactor- but did not release the radiation extent. [fn1]
At 9:02PM on Monday evening, 28 April 1986, an unprecedented 20-second announcement was read in Russia, on the TV news programme Vremya:
“There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up.”[fn2]
This was the entire announcement, and the first time the Soviet Union officially announced a nuclear accident. The Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) then discussed the Three Mile Island accident and other American nuclear accidents. The mention of a commission, however, indicated to observers the seriousness of the incident, and subsequent state radio broadcasts were replaced with classical music, which was a common method of preparing the public for an announcement of a tragedy.
The committee had been established the afternoon of the accident on April 26th, and was headed by Valery Legasov, First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. The committee included many or leading nuclear specialists and scientists.[fn3]
Through the investigation Legasov confirmed what many nuclear scientists had known – the RBMK had inherent design problems – “in particular, the location of the control rods, the containment structure, and the reactor’s positive void coefficient proved to be quite unsafe.” [fn4][fn5] Legasov mentioned that political pressure censored the mention of Soviet nuclear secrecy in his report to the IAEA in Vienna. This secrecy prevented plant operators having knowledge of previous accidents and known problems with reactor design. The Soviet criminal trial in 1987 found that the main cause of the accident was operator action and sentenced five plant employees to years of hard labor.
One day after the second anniversary of the nuclear accident in 1988, Valery Legasov committed suicide. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stated that Legasov had become bitterly disillusioned with the failure of the authorities to confront the design flaws. In 1992, a second report on the causes of the accident in 1992 concluded:
“As regards general issues, the new information demonstrates the lack of feedback of operating experience and the inadequacy of communication between designers, engineers, manufacturers, constructors, operators and regulators. These deficiencies, coupled with a lack of clear lines of responsibility, were critical factors in the events leading up to the Chernobyl accident..” [fn6] This report occurred after multiple KGB documents related to the Chernobyl plant had been declassified. These documents mentioned structural damage during construction and 29 previous emergency situations, most of which caused by negligence or poor competence of personnel. Most of the earlier accusations against staff for breach of regulations were acknowledged to be false or less relevant.
The Soviet system response in Chernobyl was not dissimilar to the previous US response to Three-Mile Island, or the Japanese response to Fukushima – release of certain information only after external sources had discovered and confirmed it. The initial evidence that a major release of radioactive material was affecting other countries came not from Soviet sources, but from Sweden, over 620 miles away. From an organizational behavior standpoint, what are effective ways to encourage organizations to “get in front of the issue” rather than chase after information discovered by others?
While the operators are not without blame, and absolutely no system is perfect, are very public gaffes or (interviews with the Washington Post) the only way to encourage organizations to release corrective or complete information? [fn7]
[fn1] “25 years after Chernobyl, how Sweden found out”. Sveriges Radio. 22 April 2011. Archived from the original on 9 November 2018.
[fn3] The HBO Chernobyl miniseries condenses these scientists into the character of Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear physicist from Minsk
[fn6] “INSAG-7: The Chernobyl Accident: Updating of INSAG-1” (PDF). IAEA. 1992. Archived (PDF) from the original on 20 October 2018