When safe enough is not good enough: Organizing safety at Chernobyl

By Sonja D. Schmid | March 1, 2011

The threat of global climate change has pushed governments around the world to consider alternative energy sources, including nuclear energy. As the interest in nuclear power increases, serious discussions on safety must resume before moving forward. There is no better time than now, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Chernobyl, to revisit the causes of the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history in an attempt to prevent future accidents. The author reviews initial reports that accused operators of violating instructions, but also looks at evidence that surfaced in the early 1990s, which suggested that the reactor design, combined with a lack of information sharing, were to blame for the explosion. While it is imperative to address human error, design flaws, and communication failures, the author argues that organizational characteristics of the Soviet nuclear power sector deserve more attention by scholars and policy makers. Chernobyl was not a disaster waiting to happen, the author writes, but occurred despite ongoing efforts to improve technical design, operator training, and inter-organizational communication. Chernobyl, in this interpretation, illuminates that what the nuclear industry considers “safe enough” is always linked to specific historical periods, cultural settings, and institutional arrangements, and that even the best efforts to ensure nuclear safety may not be good enough.

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