Chernobyl and nuclear knowledge transfer

By Peter Caracappa

At a session on educational programs during a recent ANS meeting, a fairly new graduate student in nuclear engineering described a nuclear survey course that he had taken at his university. The graduate student had not studied nuclear engineering as an undergrad, and when he said, “I had never really heard of Chernobyl before I took this course,” you could almost hear an audible gasp among the more, well, mature members of the audience.

Chernobyl-4 reactor after the accident (center), its turbine building (lower left), and Chenobyl-3 (center right).

This year—2011—marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, which occurred on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine  (then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the Soviet Union). While I am certain that there will be plenty of coverage of the event a few months from now, the anniversary serves as a reminder of just how long ago it was, and how many of the younger members of the nuclear industry were not alive or were not aware of the accident and simply have no real knowledge of it.

In full disclosure, I myself was not quite 10 years old at the time, but like the Challenger space shuttle accident that same year, Chernobyl and its aftermath were an impacting memory.

When a generation shares a major event, it can be easy to never realize that later generations have limited knowledge of the event, if any knowledge at all. It is not the technical lessons of the accident that we have to worry about losing. These lessons become part of the fabric of our educational programs, and they are built into the training, policies, and procedures throughout the industry. What we can’t replicate, however, is the emotional impact of the event. Young engineers may be able to give 20 reasons why an accident like happened at Chernobyl can never occur in the United States, but does that mean that they can frame the answers in a way that addresses the fears of their audience?

When we talk about knowledge transfer from one generation to another, we are usually talking about the technical knowledge. Even absent a strong program in that area, technical history does become part of our education, formally or informally. We learn about how regulations have changed over time, or we redo some calculations based upon a new set of standards, or we absorb some of the “war stories” from more experienced people around us. We don’t want to miss the important details, which is why knowledge management programs are so important. Whichever side of the conversation we find ourselves on, we should not forget to talk about those things—such as the emotional impact—that engineers sometimes have a more difficult time putting into words.

____________________

Caracappa

Peter Caracappa is a clinical assistant professor and radiation safety officer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in New York State. He was a founding executive committee member of the Young Members Group and currently serves as its chair. He is a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

2 responses to “Chernobyl and nuclear knowledge transfer

  1. Peter Caracappa wrote:
    When a generation shares a major event, it can be easy to never realize that later generations have limited knowledge of the event, if any knowledge at all. It is not the technical lessons of the accident that we have to worry about losing. These lessons become part of the fabric of our educational programs, and they are built into the training, policies, and procedures throughout the industry. What we can’t replicate, however, is the emotional impact of the event. Young engineers may be able to give 20 reasons why an accident like happened at Chernobyl can never occur in the United States, but does that mean that they can frame the answers in a way that addresses the fears of their audience?

    It is hard to know what to make of this. The technical lessons have been learned. What we have left are many in the older generation (myself included-I was an adult at the time) hanging on to emotional baggage related to the Chernobyl accident (myself excluded). The younger generation of nuclear professionals has a dispassionate view of the incident. The truth of their knowledge and education will do little persuade those who have long ago formed their opinion of nuclear energy based on what happened at Chernobyl, facts to the contrary be damned.

    The best hope, unfortunately, is for the older generation to pass on, and for the new generation to look at the facts of our energy situation and conclude quite rightly that we need to build a nuclear future.

  2. Mauro Missaglia

    Peter and donb,
    To start with the revelations about ages, I was almost 27 at the time of the Chernobyl accident, and still lived in Italy before coming to Paris in 1991 to join the then Framatome, now AREVA NP.
    This gives me a special perspective, and a couple of lessons learned (this vocabulary is becoming customary in many companies – including mine – and contexts, and I become to less and less like it, but still, I will use it) to be shared with younger generations of nuclear professionals. They would seem to come from geography, but they rather stem from the political / economical environment.
    You must know that, while the radioactive cloud coming from the fire started by the Chernobyl accident arrived at least in northern Italy where I used to live, it didn’t officially pass the French borders, which I would only learn later, when I arrived in Paris 5 years after the Chernobyl accident and had echoes about the furious debates and anger that this provoked between pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear activists.
    I recall very well the precautionary measures taken by the Italian government, such as the interdiction to sell and eat fresh fruits and vegetables, which scared a lot the Italian population (not me, as far as I can remember, but then, my studies in nuclear engineering helped me to put dangers in perspective, even in those early days after the accident).
    A clear political consequence: this fear of nuclear was exploited by the government in 1986/1987, a national referendum was organized (which requires collecting and validating at least 500,000 signatures) in October 1987 by the then social-democratic party and its leader, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, and a year and half after the accident, a clear majority of 60% of Italians cast a ballot against nuclear (I will not go into the details of what referendums precisely are for according to the Italian Constitution, but that was the clear reading of the results of that referendum). Although legally not a binding consequence of the result of that referendum, the decision was taken by the Italian government to completely stop the production of electricity by nuclear power plants in Italy. All the existing and under-construction nuclear power plants were stopped and never restarted again (including an 800 MWe BWR that had been in operation for just five years, and a twin-unit nuclear power plant which was about 90% completed at the time). This ban on nuclear power plants was only recently bypassed by other law(s) promoted by the present government, but again, a referendum is now in view, in order to cancel the law(s) revoking this ban, and thus prolonging the interdiction to build nuclear power plants in Italy.
    By the way, even 24 years after the accident, while on vacation in Italy last summer, I heard a listener of a radio program on one of the Italian national public radios (a very good one, Radio Tre) intervening at the phone and talking about her souvenirs of the Chernobyl accident, and how that had spurred her to document herself about nuclear, which had allowed her to be aware of the risks of nuclear, and to recently learn of 300% cancer rate increases near French nuclear installations! To what I immediately replied with a mail to the journalist conducting the program, and was called the day after to explain my point of view at the phone and on air.
    On the other hand, why according to the official version did not the Chernobyl cloud cross the French borders, at least in a first instance (of course the cloud did cross the French borders)? Well, I cannot know every details of the debate at the time since I did not live in France, but from what I read and learned later, it was an unacceptable attempt by the French nuclear lobby and the French competent authorities to hide the truth or at least to try and minimize the consequences of the accident on the French territory. It is clear that with so many nuclear power plants already in operation, under construction or foreseen at the time in France, nuclear was a sort of credo that nobody in the nuclear industry and within the government wanted to see menaced by protests or simply by requests to better know what the risks were.
    When this initial lies, or at least clumsy attempts to minimize the facts, were discovered, anger by anti-nuclear activists but also – rightly – by the general public – not necessarily anti-nuclear – arose.
    So, you can see here two completely different behaviors by the governing authorities, giving rise to completely different outcomes: transparency in Italy, but political demagogy and a wrong decision in the end to completely stop nuclear in Italy (which only accounted for a few percents of the total electricity production). Attempts to cover the facts in France, but a longstanding distrust by the population about the positions taken by the “nuclear lobby” (fortunately those who are not against nuclear, with no practical impact on the French nuclear industry, because of the de facto situation created by the already very large ratio of nuclear-generated electricity in France).
    I think that these are two very good non-technical lessons learned of the Chernobyl accident, to be thought-over by the new generation of nuclear professionals:
    a) Transparency is an absolute must for the nuclear industry, in order to avoid distrust and suspect by the general public.
    b) On the other hand, demagogy and “blowing on the fears” of the population must not be accepted, and the debate about nuclear should always be based on sound facts and figures, which may be not so easy to explain and conveyed to the general public. It is in our interest to be able to speak freely and effectively, among other nuclear related topics, about the real risks associated to nuclear, compared to the risks implied by other technologies or industries (the first thing to be thoroughly explained being the very definition of risk).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s