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Industry Specific Insights

Did a Lack of Maintenance Cause the Chernobyl Disaster?

Ryan Chan
Liquidators clean the roof of the No. 3 reactor in Chernobyl, following the 1986 disaster.

Liquidators clean the roof of reactor 3 in Chernobyl, following the 1986 disaster.  Employees could not stay any longer than 40 seconds any one time, before the radiation dose they received was the maximum authorized dose a human being should receive in his entire life. Many liquidators have since died or suffer from severe health problems. (Photo by Igor Kostin/Sygma via Getty Images) Source: The Atlantic

While maintenance is not the only cause of the Chernobyl disaster, arguably thousands of lives could have been spared had maintenance technicians implemented a stronger preventive maintenance program. 

What happened in Chernobyl? 

One of the most well known events in the history of global nuclear crises is the Chernobyl disaster. It is the worst historic nuclear disaster, rated at maximum severity of the international severity scale.  

On April 26,1986, an accident on the Chernobyl 4 reactor in Ukraine resulted in 30 deaths of operators and firemen within three months and multiple deaths later. Hundreds of workers onsite developed Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) onsite, while others suffered other medical effects as a result. While it’s unclear as to how many deaths occured long-term as a direct result of the disaster, scientists estimate that fatalities in Europe range in the thousands.

CHERNOBYL, UKRAINE, USSR – 1986: Chernobyl nuclear power plant a few months after the disaster. Chernobyl, Ukraine, USSR, 1986. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images) Source: The Atlantic

Here are a few of the ways maintenance could have prevented the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine: 

1. Flawed Structural Design

The World Nuclear Association claims it is possible that flawed design of the Soviet reactor is a causal factor for the Chernobyl disaster. The design of the RBMK emergency protection system control rods triggered the power surge that initiated the accident. 

An aerial view of the damaged Chernobyl nuclear-power plant, photographed a few weeks after the disaster, in May 1986

CHERNOBYL, UKRAINE, USSR – MAY 1986: Chernobyl nuclear power plant a few weeks after the disaster. Chernobyl, Ukraine, USSR, May 1986. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images) Source: The Atlantic

2. Errors in routine maintenance 

According to the World Nuclear Association, Chenobyl was caused by an error during a routine maintenance inspection. Prior a routine safety test, the reactor crew was getting ready to determine how long turbines would spin and catalyze the main circulating pumps, following a loss of main power. This was a test that had been conducted the previous year; however, the turbine ran down too quickly, so the reactor crew was conducting the test on new voltage regulator designs. Now, we know that all machinery, especially those we are unfamiliar, require scheduled maintenance checks, so that no detail gets lost in the papertrail. 

Human errors are inevitable, especially when technology does not automate processes. When the operator tried to disable automatic shutdown mechanisms, the reactor was in an unstable condition, resulting in a dramatic power surge with the control rods hitting the reactor, causing the Chernobyl disaster.

A bulldozer digs a large trench in front of a house before burying the building and covering it with earth. This method is applied to entire villages that were contaminated after the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident. (Photo by Igor Kostin/Sygma via Getty Images)

A bulldozer digs a large trench in front of a house before burying the building and covering it with earth. This method is applied to entire villages that were contaminated after the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident. (Photo by Igor Kostin/Sygma via Getty Images) Source: The Atlantic

Why is maintenance important? 

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the psychological theory of motivation states that basic physiological needs must be met in order for an individual to focus outside of the self and achieve other goals, such as career aspirations and relationships. When these ideals are met, one achieves self-actualization. It is critical to realize that maintenance is at the very foundation of this pyramid.

Maintenance Meets our Most Basic Needs and Beyond 

When we think of maintenance, we often think about repairing breakdowns as they happen, or scheduling routine inspections of equipment of advance. Whether it’s a faulty Hobart mixer in your industrial kitchen, or a routine HVAC inspection in your facility, these are small errors that often cause nuisances and delays, but aren’t perilous. The other more pernicious aspect of maintenance, however, is rarely discussed. 

Maintenance of nuclear facilities can have life or death consequences, if not attended properly. Our most important need as human beings is the ability to breathe. This requires careful attention to the toxins that are in the atmosphere. As demonstrated by historic events, mistakes in maintenance planning can have grave consequences. 

A Soviet technician checks toddler Katya Litvinova, during a radiation inspection of residents of the village of Kopylovo, near Kiev, May 9, 1986. People are checked after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident April 26, 1986 (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko)

A Soviet technician checks toddler Katya Litvinova, during a radiation inspection of residents of the village of Kopylovo, near Kiev, May 9, 1986. People are checked after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident April 26, 1986 (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko) Source: The Atlantic

Conclusion

While more standardized maintenance protocols could have prevented the disaster at Chernobyl, one cannot change history. Instead, the past informs our decisions to create a safer future. Maintenance technicians in nuclear facilities should feel empowered by the technology that exists to ensure that health and safety protocols are followed every step of the process. Flawed structural design and errors in routine maintenance are less likely to occur with a strong CMMS implementation within your organization. 

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