Things Are Not Always What They Appear To Be

The Nuclear Power Effect and how we are susceptible to it

Tom Stevenson


Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

On 26 April 1986, a safety test was carried out on the RBMK-type nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.

The test was held to help the development of a safety procedure for cooling water in the event of an electrical power outage. Three tests had been held in 1982, but none had been able to provide a solution.

The test was delayed by 10 hours which resulted in the team that had been prepared to manage the test to be replaced by an underprepared team.

During the preparations for the test, the reactor power dropped to near-zero, an unexpected level. Power was restored by the operators, but they had unwittingly put the reactor into a highly unstable condition.

Despite a similar event occurring a few years earlier, the team conducting was unaware of the severity of the situation. The risks were not explained on the operating instructions either.

The team proceeded with the test regardless and upon completion triggered the reactor shutdown. Due to construction flaws and the design of the reactor, the shutdown caused an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction.

Superheated cooling water was released which ruptured the reactor core in a steam explosion. An open-air reactor core fire also occurred which released high levels of airborne radioactive contamination for nine days which spread to places in the USSR and Western Europe before it was contained.

The incident came to be known as the Chernobyl disaster. 31 people died as an immediate result of the disaster, but the UN predicted a further 4,000 people may die as a result of exposure to radiation.

Chernobyl is considered to be the worst nuclear accident in history and contributed to a breakdown of public trust in Nuclear power.

But is all as it seems? Is Nuclear power as dangerous as we think? Is it any more dangerous than burning fossil fuels and contributing to climate change?

Sometimes, our perceptions can colour the truth. The risk of a nuclear power plant exploding trumps the reality that events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are outliers.