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Chernobyl Disaster

Executive Summary of Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident

The Chernobyl disaster that happened on 26 April 1986, is considered the biggest nuclear disaster the world has ever observed. The accident occurred due to an unexpected power surge in the chamber of the nuclear reactor which made it blast and caused the fuel to leak in the environment contaminating the nearby areas of Ukraine and the neighbouring countries of Belarus, Russia, and various other parts of Europe. The blast in the nuclear reactor killed 2 members of the reactor crew and 28 other people including the operators and firemen later, due to the Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). However, the count of the infected people was way more than the dead and the effect of the radiation in them can be seen to date. The areas of nuclear contamination due to the accident were not limited to Ukraine, Belarus, the Russian Federation, or parts of Europe, but the whole world suffered the consequences of the accident. The post-accident developments in the nuclear industry turned out to be helpful for the world but the price paid for the learning of such developments was very huge. 

An epistemic accident is an accident that occurs only because of the involvement of advanced innovative systems and is likely to reoccur since they include the introduction of new technology and its testing functionality. These accidents are different from normal accidents in a variety of factors. Such accidents occur in the field where complex design and innovative technology are concerned as these factors involve the scope that these accidents are unavoidable as there is no prior research or practical observations available to support the success of the event. Moreover, these accidents are likely to reoccur. However, the probability of such a possibility might be very less as compared to normal accidents. The most important factor is the identification of faults in the existing design models of any field.

The aim of the paper is to check whether the Chernobyl disaster qualifies as an epistemic accident and to analyze the learning outcomes as a result of the accident so that any further accident could be prevented by following the suggestions and the learning outcomes from the accident.

Table of Contents

Executive Summary.


Health Issues involved in the accident.

Chernobyl Disaster as an epidemic accident?.

Impact on the Nuclear Industry.

Learning outcomes from the accident



Introduction to Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident

The disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Unit – 4 was an outcome of the flawed design of the RBMK nuclear reactor which was designed by the Soviet Union and the serious mistakes committed by the nuclear power plant operators. The accident occurred on 26 April 1986 when the newly designed voltage regulators were to be tested to provide consistent output from the long blade turbines which were installed to supply the main circulating pumps which were installed to cool down the reactor in the case of loss of power, as the test conducted in 1985 regarding the same failed. Several settings and adjustments along with presets had to be done to assure the successful testing of the turbines and the voltage regulators. However, the automatic shutdown mechanism had also been deactivated to assure the manual mode to be operated by the operators. During the test, the operator observed some abnormalities in the test and moved forward to shut down the reactor but by that time, the reactor had reached into a highly unstable situation and the same fact was unknown to the operator. The main reason was the lack of information between the team conducting the test and the reactor safety supervisor and resultantly, due to this lack of information, the test was conducted with improper safety measures and preparations and the operator was not alerted about the risks on the reactor safety implications involved in the test due to the electrical fluctuations arising because of the test. The required power during the test was to be kept in the range of 700 – 1000MWt before the shutdown of the reactor in any case and by the time the operator shut down the reactor, the power had suddenly fallen to about 30MWt and the attempts to increase the power supply of the reactor were done but the same failed due to the occurrence of reduced coolant void and graphite cooldown and xenon poisoning (World Nuclear Association 2019b).

Due to these occurrences, the cooling water supply to the reactor core was disrupted which caused the rise in the pressure in the steam chamber and thus causing the first explosion. The second explosion followed a few seconds later due to the formation of hydrogen from the steam-Zirconium reaction thus causing the reactor fuel, the graphite moderator, and the structure material to eject and resultantly causing a series of fire and causing the destroyed core of the reactor to expose in the environment. Due to this a cloud of smoke, radioactive fission products, and the debris from the core was formed which rose to a height of about 1 km in the sky and to combat which around 1800 helicopter flights were conducted to prevent the fire from spreading and control the radioactive particle emission and to stop any undergoing nuclear reaction or the renewal of any nuclear reaction inside the reactor. Since the fire involved not just the fuel and moderator in the reactor core but also the graphite blocks inside it and the nearby building structures with machinery and records were also within the limits of the fire, a variety of fire extinguishing techniques were required and that too at different levels. Also to prevent the leakage of the molten radioactive material (if any) a slab had to be constructed below the reactor to prevent the leakage and also use the slab as a cooling mechanism from below the surface. The fire in the plant continued for around 10 days releasing a huge amount of radiation in the atmosphere throughout the period. After the fire was controlled, the destroyed structure of the reactor was covered in a concrete structure and packed to prevent any further radioactive emission in the environment and cause health issues to the people nearby.

Although the deaths associated with the accident directly were not more than 31 which included the death of the operator due to the first explosion whose body was never recovered, the death of the second worker, a few hours later in the hospital, then further deaths of around 28 firemen and plant workers in the upcoming weeks after the incident. Apart from these deaths, there were additional deaths of the people associated with the accident but they happened in the future, and also no connection between the deaths of those people and radiation was found so these deaths were not directly associated with the accident. The impact of the accident on the people infected with the radiation was catastrophic and the accident had a huge impact on the health of the people (UNSCEAR, 2011).

Health Issues Involved in The Accident

According to the report by United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR, 2010), the committee agreed on the issue that the accident has caused a sudden increase in the cases of thyroid cancer which was because of the radioactive substance Iodine-131 (131I) and the other radioactive substance Caesium-137 (137Cs) caused the failure of other non-thyroid associated body organs of the workers, staff members and the firefighters who were on duty at the time of the explosion and all those people who came into the contact of the smoke, dust, and debris as an outcome of the during the 10 days fire in the reactor. The most contaminated areas due to the radioactive emission were Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation which was further divided into three areas according to the level of contamination suffered by the people (Jaworowski Z. 2010). Around 100,000 were evacuated from the most contaminated areas of Belarus and Ukraine within a few weeks of the incident. However, a total of 161,000 people were evacuated and later relocated from the contaminated areas besides the relocation of around 220,000 in the upcoming years.

According to (WHO 2006), the organization raised concerns about the incorrect attribution of the biological and the health effects on the people affected by radiation, following which the Soviet Union demanded intervention of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the assessment procedure of the people so affected in the contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation. From March 1990 to June 1991, a team of 200 members from around 25 countries conducted about 50 missions indulging in seven major organizations. The “Chernobyl Forum” was established by the IAEA in the year 2003 and as per the 2006 report of the forum, the thyroid cancer was the only major health issue that was observed as an outcome of the incident.

Chernobyl Disaster as an Epidemic Accident?

An event that is unplanned and is not expected or not intended to happen and the occurrence of which causes any damage or loss to any property or causes injury to any person is termed as an accident. Accidents are of various kind but based on their occurrence and the type of knowledge or the understanding of any new technology is involved, the accidents can be classified as normal accidents and epistemic accidents. Normal accidents are the accidents that are unpredictable and unavoidable to happen and are most likely to occur in densely and complex structured mechanisms. These accidents are unlikely to reoccur as they do not involve any new elemental paradigm thus requiring no additional expertise of the workers or operators. These accidents occur only while following the established principles and concepts and do not require the establishment or testing of any new theory in the field of practicality. Moreover, any accident involves the process of learning something new does not fall under the scope of normal accidents.

However, epistemic accidents are different from normal accidents due to a variety of factors that include the occurrence of an epistemic accident in the areas where any innovative system or concept is involved. These accidents occur when the need to test the new technology or the performance of any new design is concerned. They involve the evolution of the exixting theories and concepts and also comprise of the practical tests or experiments required for the purpose of the proving of the newly discovered paradigm. The epistemic accidents may occur while there is an undergoing process of learning of any new concept through the process of practical experimentation or testing (Downer J. 2019).

According to (Downer J. 2011), Perrow (1984) has mentioned that Chernobyl was not a normal accident but an epistemic accident. The Chernobyl accident was an epistemic as it involved all the necessary features of an epistemic accident. For instance, the accident happened while testing the new voltage regulators and the emergency reactor cooling mechanism. An attempt to test the same was already done in 1985 but the same failed. Hence, the test involved the testing of new technology and also the complex design of the reactor cooling system. Also, the test involved the new cooling system which was to be tested that was a part of the heuristic process to avoid disruption in the cooling mechanism of the nuclear reactor. However, the test could not be completed due to the lack of adequate information required regarding the coordination between the test officials and the reactor safety management supervisor. According to (IAEA 1993), the INSAG-7 suggested that the accident occurred due to the lack of knowledge of the operating staff which ultimately caused the accident to become unpredictable and unavoidable to the team conducting the test. Hence, the Chernobyl Accident completely satisfies the qualification as an Epistemic Accident. 

Impact on the Nuclear Industry

The Chernobyl accident is rated as a level-7 nuclear disaster due to its severity in the nuclear history of the world (Wheatley S., Sovacool B. & Sornette D. 2016). The second accident is the Fukushima Dai-chi with the same rating. The immediate impact that the nuclear industry faced was the removal of the radioactive waste from the contaminated areas and second, the relocation and the resettlement of the infected population who were given the identity of ‘liquidators’ (World Nuclear Association 2019a). During 1986-1987, there were approximately 200,000 liquidators from the Soviet Union itself who were infected with high doses of the radiation and were in dire need of relocation and resettlement far away from the contaminated areas. Moreover, the on-duty staff and the power plant workers were the people who received the highest doses of the radiation as they were present on the first day of the accident. The remaining units of the Chernobyl power plant continued operational unless it was decided to completely shut down the plant. The units 1, 2, and 3 were officially shut down in the years 1996, 1991, and 2000 respectively (World Nuclear Association 2020).

The nuclear industry dealt with a huge impact after the Chernobyl as the Soviet reactors were spread not just in the USSR but in most of Europe and other parts of the world as well. Thus, a sudden need for the up-gradation of the safety procedures and the nuclear safety guidelines were demanded by the nuclear industry. The global nuclear industry was diagnosed thoroughly and the deficiencies were identified so that they can be removed and the industry could be made more secure from the consequences in case of such accidents. Lack of emergency protocols and safety measures caused Chernobyl to be a severe accident. According to (USNRC 2018), if timely actions have been taken by the Chernobyl Authorities then people could have been prevented from getting exposed to nuclear radiation that came out of the reactor. The authorities concealed the accident information from the government that caused the delay in the evacuation process by 36 hours. The food chain also got contaminated due to the radiation in the environment which entered the human bodies through the food and milk consumed by them due to the absence of information about the accident (NEI 2019). The nuclear industry went through a revision regarding the safety protocols and the procedures relating to the durability of the nuclear reactors. 

Learning Outcomes from The Accident

There are several lessons that the world and the nuclear industry have learned from Chernobyl. These include amendments in the concepts of reactor safety in the Eastern world and the guidelines on operating procedures and reactor design for the western world. Special emphasis has been given on the soviet designed nuclear reactors all around the globe because of the unique design and components of the soviets. The Chernobyl accident also compelled the manufacturers RBMK to change the design of the operating reactors as the fault in the functioning of the reactors was now known. The required changes in the reactors by increasing the fuel enrichment to make it more stable at low power and changes in the control rods and the increased neutron absorbers were done as an outcome of the accident. According to the report of the German Nuclear Safety Agency (GRS 1996), the second Chernobyl accident is virtually impossible because of the updated design of the RBMK reactors.

As per the reports of (World Nuclear Association, 2019), the IAEA had initiated safety projects for the review of all the Soviet Reactors through the Chernobyl Forum thus bringing together the scientific minds of the east and the west. The Nuclear Safety Convention of 1994 is also an outcome of the accident along with the internationally funding database under the title ‘Nuclear Safety Assistance Coordination Centre’ to backup any safety-related project in the Eastern Bloc countries. The lack of a solid covering structure over the reactor turned out to be a major deficiency that resulted in the exposure of excessive radiation in the environment. Thus the covering of the nuclear reactors in a fortified concrete structure was made mandatory by IAEA (NEI 2019). However, in the case of Chernobyl, the concrete covering which was made after the extinguishment of the 10-day fire to protect the exposure of further radiation in the atmosphere was becoming weaker and crippled with time, so as a measure to prevent the environment from the radiation it was enclosed in a huge steel and concrete structure in November 2018 which has an estimated life span of more than 100 years.

Conclusion on Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident

The Chernobyl accident was the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind. Although it was unavoidable due to the elements of epistemic involved in it, the severity of the consequences could have been controlled or decreased in case of the proper knowledge about the safety measures and protocols. The excessive exposure of the radioactive substances in the atmosphere caused the contamination over a larger area than expected since the plume went high up in the air and traveled over major parts of Europe and the Russian Federation. The radiation effects can be seen to date and the sufferings of the people in the form of thyroid cancer passed over generations.

However, the accident also resulted in the diagnostic of the nuclear industry thus making it almost impossible for any such accident to occur again. It also resulted in the drafting of universal safety protocols and evacuation plans around all nuclear facilities after the establishment of the Chernobyl Forum that served as the foundation of the exchange of the knowledge of the east and the west. The committees formed for the investigation of the health issues that emerged after the Chernobyl Accident and also to investigate the reasons behind the accident provided with the observations that changed the absolute scenario of the nuclear industry and that too specifically the Soviet nuclear industry. The exchange of information from the west also secured an important position to set a global pact between all the nuclear powers to maintain uniformity among them. The creation of the funding database for the east also turned out to be a relief if in case any such event reoccurred. However, the Chernobyl accident can be considered as the worst epistemic accident which in return provided the best lesson the world will ever learn.

References for Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident

Downer J. (2011). Anatomy of a Disaster: Why Some Accidents Are Unavoidable. Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation. Retrieved from http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/36542/1/Disspaper61.pdf

Downer J. (2019). On Ignorance and Apocolypse: A Brief Introduction to ‘Epistemic Accidents’. Safety Science Research: Evolution, Challenges, and New Directions. Boca Raton, Florida. CRC Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.co.in/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Ye2oDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT80&dq=epistemic+accidents&ots=eW3JIEcSW3&sig=_dQtvxur7L_SE-_zKMPTwnHnTTI&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=epistemic%20accidents&f=false

IAEA (1993). INSAG-7, The Chernobyl Accident: Updating of INSAG-1. International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG). 75(7). 1-135. Retrieved from https://www.iaea.org/publications/3786/the-chernobyl-accident-updating-of-insag-1

Jaworowski Z. (2010). Observations on the Chernobyl Disaster and LNT. Dose-Response (DOS). DOI: 10.2203/dose-response.09-029.Jaworowski

NEI (2019). Comparing Fukushima and Chernobyl. Nuclear Energy Institute, Washington D.C. Retrieved from https://www.nei.org/resources/fact-sheets/comparing-fukushima-and-chernobyl

NEI (2020). Chernobyl Accident and Its Consequences. Nuclear Energy Institute, Washington D.C. Retrieved from https://www.nei.org/resources/fact-sheets/chernobyl-accident-and-its-consequences

UNSCEAR (2010). SOURCES AND EFFECTS OF IONIZING RADIATION. United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). Vol. 1. Retrieved from https://www.unscear.org/docs/publications/2008/UNSCEAR_2008_Report_Vol.I.pdf

UNSCEAR (2011). SOURCES AND EFFECTS OF IONIZING RADIATION. United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). Vol. 2. Retrieved from https://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf

USNRC (2018). Backgrounder on Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident. United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Retrieved from https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML0511/ML051160016.pdf

Wheatley S., Sovacool B. & Sornette D. (2016). Of Disaster and Dragon Kings: A Statistical Analysis of Nuclear Power Incidents and Accidents. Risk Analysis: An International Journal. 37(1). 99-115. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.12587

WHO (2006). Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes. UN Chernobyl Forum Expert Group “Health”. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9241594179

World Nuclear Association (2019a). Health Impacts – Chernobyl Accident Appendix 2. Retrieved from https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/appendices/chernobyl-accident-appendix-2-health-impacts.aspx

World Nuclear Association (2019b). Sequence of Events – Chernobyl Accident Appendix 1. Retrieved from https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/appendices/chernobyl-accident-appendix-1-sequence-of-events.aspx

World Nuclear Association (2020). Chernobyl Accident 1986. Retrieved from https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx

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