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Friday, May 10, 2019

Chernobyl 1.1: The Errors of Arrogance

Tampering with Mother Nature has its risks, and there's probably no greater tampering than messing with the atom.   The stark dangers are paramount not only in the use of nuclear weapons, but, unfortunately, in the attempt to harness the power of the atom for peaceful purposes, such as the production of energy.   Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, and Fukushima Daiishi in Japan are examples of what can go very wrong at a nuclear power plant.  Chernobyl, with anywhere from 4000 to 200,000 deaths resulting for the explosion of its core, is far and away the worst.

Its story is therefore manifestly right for docu-drama treatment.   And it's about much more than what can go wrong at a nuclear power plant.  It's about how a totalitarian regime is singularly unfit to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear disaster, and in terms of ultimate loss of life, makes the consequences of the disaster much worse.

In the first episode of Chernobyl, we see this writ large.  All but a handful of people at various levels minimize the destruction of the core, even though they're repeatedly told by close observers that it no longer exists.   The level of roentgens (radiation) is said to be 3.2, even though administrators are repeatedly told that's the highest level on the small device making the measurement, meaning the device can't show a higher level.  And when a more sophisticated device is brought in, with an upper limit of 200 roentgens, the powers that be make the same mistake.

One of the administrators sitting around the table in a bunker says everyone in the area should be evacuated as fast as possible.  He's overruled by a higher up who sees the event as a great opportunity for the Soviet Union to demonstrate its capability of dealing with the accident and keeping the public calm.

Errors like this, self-inflicted, did far more damage that the explosion itself.   The question that all of us in 2019 must ask is:  are we better at avoiding those errors of arrogance now than the Soviet Union was in 1986?


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