Chernobyl, Nuclear Energy and Risk Perception

Can Risk Management Be Prosperous?

Term Paper, 2008

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Causes and Background to the Accident in Chernobyl 2
1.1 The RBMK-1000 Reactor
1.2 The Accident in Chernobyl

Chapter 2: Risk Perception, Risk Management and Chernobyl
2.1 The Accidents´ Influence on Risk Perception
2.2 The Role of the Media
2.3 Risk Management Problems

Chapter 3: Chernobyl as Holiday Destination
3.1 Conscious Risk as Thrill – Chernobyl and Dark Tourism
3.2 Daytrip to the Restricted Area

Conclusion: A Solution Statement ?



„Public attitudes towards nuclear energy tend to be dominated by safety considerations.” (Van der Pligt 1990: 91)

The present essay deals with the issue of the danger and risk perception of nuclear energy in connection with the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in the year 1986. Under the central question: can Risk Management be successful concerning the reduction of the people´s risk perception of nuclear energy and nuclear accidents? it was attempted to find a first answer based on the analysis of newspaper articles and books. Thereby the role of the media and the psychology of the people in terms of Risk Perception is kept in mind.

Although the accident in Chernobyl happened already 22 years ago, it left a lasting mark on the people´s perception of the safety of nuclear energy and nuclear power in general. To find an access to the topic, Chapter 1 deals with the causes and backgrounds of the accident. In order to achieve a suitable argumentation basis for the assessment of the related Risk Management and the Risk Perception of the people, it is very important to present the causes and the background.

The leverage the accident had on the risk perception of people in relation to nuclear energy and nuclear safety in general, is discussed in Chapter 2. Here the role of the media is raised as well. The media have a not inconsiderable effect on how we perceive risks in everyday life. The problems arising in the context of managing these risks are highlighted as well as the question whether and how these problems, if applicable, can be solved. As a matter of course I am aware of the fact that the topic of Risk Management and Risk Perception is a broad field and that I can only analyze and present aspects in the range of this work. Nevertheless, I have tried to show many and interesting points of view to this area of sociology. For this reason, I have decided to present the issue of tourism in Chernobyl in Chapter 3. Because, although the people are aware of the risk and the danger in which they resort themselves, some people decide to choose the contaminated zone around Chernobyl as a tourist destination. This seems especially paradox, because of the fact that those people settle for a risk they would actually be afraid of in everyday life. There are various explanations for this behavior, which will be presented in this chapter. I decided to incorporate this topic within this essay, because the behavior of these people is totally contradictory to their nature and indicates that people perceive risks not always in the same way.

Keywords: Chernobyl · Risk Perception · Media · Risk Management · nuclear accidents · Dark Tourism

Chapter 1: Causes and Backround to the Accident in Chernobyl

For a long time, the causes and consequences of the farest-reaching reactor accident in the history of nuclear energy use was not completely known. This was primarily due to the faulty or delayed information policy of the Soviet authorities (Gerndt 1990: 155): “The way the accident was managed and the lack of information provoked a feeling of distrust in the minds of the public that was reinforced by the fact that radiation cannot be perceived by humans, although it can be easily identified with electronic detectors, even at a very low level.” (NEA 2002: 3). Today, the larger context and background of the accident is known. These are presented in the following.

1.1 The RBMK-1000 Reactor

„This positive coefficient of reactivity was a design weakness of the RBMK reactors.“ (Deutch et al 2004: 123)

One of the main reasons for the Chernobyl disaster was the faulty design of the nuclear reactor. The reactor was part of the Soviet serial of RBMK-1000 reactors[1]. RBMK reactors hold, in comparison to Western reactors, significant security shortcomings. They have, for example, no pressure and gas-tight cladding (a “containment”), which encloses the reactor building, and thus act like a “security container” (Heinloth 2003: 481): “While containment is absolutely necessary, it may not be sufficient. It can be ruptured.” (Perrow 1984: 41). Since this serial of reactors were also used to produce plutonium for military purposes, one built the reactor facilities sites only on the surface of the former Soviet Union (Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine). An export to other countries happened therefore not (Kinzelmann et al 42007: 5).The technical shortcomings of the reactors were known by the Soviet specialists, but because of cost reasons, they could usually not be repaired. The “lack of a safety culture”, as Western experts used to describe the organizational deficits in the former Soviet Union, was a further factor in this context (NEA 2002: 31): “The Soviet Union […] is far less concerned about the chance of large accidents, so they did not build containment structures for their early reactors, nor do they yet require emergency core cooling systems.” (Perrow 1984: 40).

Another reason for the accident was the use of a graphite block to slow down the neutrons. In Western reactors, the cooling water acts at the same time as moderator. Thereby a chain reaction can automatically be stopped only by the reduction of the cooling water. With the RBMK reactors, however, cooling and breaking solvent are not identical. This causes by an increase in performance that the chain reaction rate is growing faster as well (“positive void coefficient”). In this way the reactor becomes an unpredictable risk (NEA 2002: 26/Salge et al 2006: 99). In addition, through a chemical reaction with the graphite in the core of the reactor, evolves an easily combustible gas and thus increases the risk that a disaster developes out of an “normal” accident (K. Thiemig Verlag 1981: 82).

Now the question arises why the Soviets have ever built the RBMK reactors. From the Soviet perspective, these reactors have several advantages. (1) This kind of nuclear power plants can be build up in a “modular design”. That means that smaller modules and delivered to a favorable location where the facility can be mounted. That is why the installation is flexible and not dependent on infrastructural conditions. (2) Through its superior availability and utilization ratio, the facilities have proved themselves in the practical operation from the Soviets point of view (Kinzelmann et al 42007: 6). (3) In addition, the reactors´ power may be increased easily by means of installing additional fuel rods. (4) Furthermore the construction of the reactor provided plutonium as a by-product. This fact helped the Soviets to close the gap in the arms race against the United States (Salge et al 2006: 102).

These benefits, however, adverse disadvantages that are dangerous to the public safety. (1) Due to the positive void coefficient, not only the chain reaction may increase in certain situations, but also the nuclear power. (2) The lack of a protective gas cladding (a “containment”) leads, in the case of a leak, to the emersion of radioactive radiation. (3) To this increased security risk, especially when it comes to the safety of the employees, the defective safety devices are conducive (Kinzelmann et al 42007: 6). All this makes the RBMK reactors to ticking time bombs which will become an unpredictable security risk in the event of an unforeseen situation. In the night of the 25th to the 26th of April 1986 such an unpredictable situation occurred in Ukrainian Chernobyl.

1.2 The Accident in Chernobyl

“The reactor design was poor from the point of view of safety and unforgiving for the

operators, both of which provoked a dangerous operating state.” (NEA 2002: 31).

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was considered as a “model plant” in the USSR. It is located in the flat, Belarusian-Ukrainian forest area on the banks of the river Pripjet (see Fig. 1). The plant consisted of four RBMK reactors. Two more were under construction and should be put into operation in 1986 and 1988 (Kinzelmann et al 42007: 7).

The trigger for the explosion of reactor block 4 was a test that was accomplished in the night of the 25th of April- acutally to proof the security of the reactor (Deutch et al 2004: 123). Its aim was to ascertain if the mechanical energy of the turbine rotor is, in the case of an electrical power outage, sufficient to produce energy until the emergency backup generators start running (BMU 2008: 1). The same test had already failed in 1985. That is why one decided this time to accomplish the test while the reactor, though not at full power, was in operation (Kinzelmann et al 42007: 7). This

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 1 Geographical position of Chernobyl

Source: NEA May 2008

experimental arrangement was not only in breach of the company regulations, but also jointly responsible for the accident. “Jointly responsible” because operator errors and deficiencies in maintenance of the facility in conjunction with the disadvantageous physical and technical safety features of the reactor tripped the disaster ultimately (Astroh 2003: 175). After at first several warning signs of the reactor has been ignored to conduct the

test still successfully - although there has been an unexpected increase in performance - finally the decision was made to activate the emergency cutout. The staff was not, however, aware of the fact that the RBMK reactors had a determing design flaw. Indeed, contrary to all logic, the reactivity inside the reactor increases in these reactors before an emergency cutout takes place (Deutch et al 2004: 123). Within a few seconds there was a rapid increase in performance. The released energy

came quickly in the surrounding cooling water. It came spontaneously to evaporation. The reactor itself could not stand the resulting pressure and exploded (see Fig. 2) (BMU 2008: 1). The extent of the accidentincreased postdoctorate the explosion especially because no contingency plans existed. The staff was forced to confine the danger of another explosion and the spread of radioactive radiation arbitrary improvised on their own. In subsequent days, tons of protective materials were bucked off from a helicopter over the accident site (Kinzelmann et al 42007: 10).

To curb the radiation a sarcophagus was built

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 2 Reactor block 4 after the explosion

Source: Kinzelmann et al 42007: 8

around the accident site in the following months. Because this sarcophagus, however, was built upon the existing old remnants of the reactor block, its stability is not avouched. A much-needed restoration is being planned. In addition, a new inclusion around the sarcophagus (a “shelter”) will be build. This shelter shall encase the radioactive material for at least 100 years (BMU 2008: 7).

In 2006 there were still 17 of RBMK reactors in operation. 15 of them in Russia and two in Lithuania (NEA 2006: 19). The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was finally closed down on the 15th of December 2000 (BMU 2008: 5).

Chapter 2: Risk Perception, Risk Management and Chernobyl

2.1 The Accidents´ Influence on Risk Perception

„It has been argued that because of the importance of safety aspects in the public`s acceptance of nuclear energy, attitudes are more likely to become antinuclear because of major accident […] than more pronuclear as a result of a period of safe operations.” (Van der Pligt 1990: 91)

Nuclear accidents have a major influence on the risk perception of the people concerning nuclear power and nuclear energy in general (Van der pligt 1990: 91). The “Three Mile Island” accident in 1979, already shook people´s confidence in the safety of nuclear power. Only 7 years later, the accident in Chernobyl happened. Despite of the fact that the backgrounds of both accidents were completely different, the accident in Chernobyl confirmed, so to speak, the distrust of the people (Deutch 2004: 124). “While the first accident provided the impetus to develop new research programs on nuclear safety, the second, with its human death toll and the dispersion of a large part of the reactor core into the environment, raised a large number of “management” problems, not

only for the treatment of severely exposed persons, but also for the decisions that had to be taken in respect of the population.” (NEA 2002: 3). To destroy the trust in nuclear power is much easier than to rebuild it (Taylor-Gooby et al 2006: 63). Confirmed by both accidents, which are still used as a reference or proof of the uncertainty of nuclear power plants, the risk perception of the people rose worldwide: “[...] a majority of the public believes that more such accidents are likely to happen, and a large majority now says that it is concerned about waste management issues.”

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 3 Europe-wide contamination as a

consequence of the accident in Chernobyl

Source: Landkarten Blog 2008-02-08

(Van der pligt 1990: 91). This shows that the people after the accident were not only concerned about the safety of nuclear power, but also on other related factors. Suddenly topics that were pushed aside for a long time like the question of the disposal of nuclear waste are back on the agenda. The famous saying: “Something big has to happen before people react.” hits the mark in this case. Obviously, the disposal of nuclear waste is not only a problem since yesterday. Nevertheless, we need a disaster that shows us the extent nuclear power can actuate (see Fig. 3). “Minor” nuclear waste scandals such as the sinking of nuclear waste in the oceans of the world, which are presented one to two times a year in a 20 second lasting report in the evening news, are not scandalous enough to trigger a reaction. Public pressure that forces politicians to act, is missing. While thousands of barrels still “store” and be deposed in the seas of the world, everyone talks only about the large-scale disasters.

But who or what actually makes an event to a disaster? The media play a big role in this context.

2.2 The Role of the Media

„The media have at times published pictures of human and animal deformities without investiga-ting their veritable connection with the accident and the public, struck by such images, has been allowed, unchallenged, to lay the blame on Chernobyl.” (NEA 2002: 4)

News about serious accidents and unusual risks can better be merchandised: “bad news can always be sold but, contrarily, good news is no news” (Touzet et al 2000: 133). Media often use numbers to point up the dramatic art of a situation or an accident: the earth around Chernobyl will be polluted within a radius of 30 kilometers for about 20,000 years polluted. 130,000 people had to be relocated permanently. In the accident 30 people died of acute radiation injuries and about half a million people were exposed to significant doses of radiation and will have to deal with health consequences their whole life (Deutch 2004: 123/Strauß et al 1989: 470). 140,000 deaths in Ukraine in the years between 1988-1994, shall be the direct consequence of the accident (Kinzelmann et al 42007: 28). The media, visual, print and audiovisual, are all filled with the same topic after such an accident. The hype, however, holds only until the first “shock” over what happened is vanquished, the cruelest and most scandalous pictures were shown and the public interest is declining. Often the expert background information in the reporting does not even matter. Due to the quote pressure mainly the television transmitters limit the information to those, which can be marketed best (Touzet et al 2000: 133). If the first hype evaporated, the audience thus “fed up” with the most shocking facts and figures, individual fates of the disaster will be picked and presented, in order to keep the audience at it (Hughes et al 2006: 256). Individual fates attract always. The little boy, whoms parents had lost their lifes at the respective accident and now is fighting for survival with his little sister, always aroused sympathy and attention.

The people are dependent on the information in the media. Man does not have access to data, to evaluate a situation independently (Touzet et al 2000: 133). For this reason, they are forced to believe to reporting in the media, even though this is not always altruistic. The only possibility to evade erroneous or incomplete reporting is to consult different media sources on a given topic to ensure a complete information picture.


[1] Abbreviation for “reaktor bolshoi moshchnosti kanalnyi” (high-power channel reactor). With this type of reactors natural water is used as coolant while graphite acts as moderator. The graphite ensures that those neutrons that are too fast for the desired operation are slowed down (Salge et al 2006: 95/NEA 2006: 19).

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Chernobyl, Nuclear Energy and Risk Perception
Can Risk Management Be Prosperous?
Mid Sweden University  (Department of Sociology)
Risk Management and Risk Communication
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Chernobyl, Risk Perception, Media, Risk Management, nuclear accidents, Dark Tourism
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Sandra Schindlauer (Author), 2008, Chernobyl, Nuclear Energy and Risk Perception, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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