23 Mar 2015
This memo is a failure analysis report on the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant located near the city of Pripyat, Ukraine. On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the power plant exploded, releasing a powerful stream of radioactive vapour. Immediately, the explosion killed 54 people. Later on, effects due to radiation claimed the lives of at least an additional 2500 people (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2006). This report will explain the events leading up to the failure, the failure itself, the reasons for the failure, and the lessons to be learned from this failure.
The Chernobyl Power Plant was fuelled using uranium mined from the earth; the uranium was kept in fuel bundles. The main objective of the power plant was to convert heat produced by the slightly-enriched uranium into electricity (World Nuclear Association, 2009). In order to do this, control rods first slowed down the rates of reactions by absorbing stray neutrons from the fission reactions (World Nuclear Association, 2009). After the fission reactions began producing heat, this heat was then transferred to stored water which eventually converted to steam at a temperature of 580Â°C (The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, 2008). The pressure of the steam moved a turbine which then powered a generator. The final process was the condensation of the steam back into liquid using a cooling lake, thus repeating the cycle (World Nuclear Association, 2009). This type of nuclear reactor is known as a high-power channel reactor or a RBMK reactor, as referred to it by the Soviets (World Nuclear Association, 2009). The Chernobyl Power Plant had four such reactors each with a power rating of 1000 megawatts (World Nuclear Association, 2009). The diagram at the end of this report illustrates this reactor along with all the bolded components.
Hours before the explosion, engineers within the plant were planning tests to see how the reactor would run on low power (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2006). The engineers added control rods to slow the reaction. They then disabled the cooling system, which was a major safety violation. The reactor was then incrementally slowed to reach the lowest operating power (The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, 2008). Soon after, the engineers noticed that the reactor was moving towards shutdown, so they quickly lifted the control rods to increase the rate of reaction. Suddenly, the power levels of the reactors increased, uncontrollably, and caused fuel elements to rupture along with an increase in steam generation (World Nuclear Association, 2009). This led to the detachment of the reactor support plate which caused the control rods to jam. The channel pipes then burst, and the explosion occurred, releasing 50 tons of radioactive particles into the atmosphere (World Nuclear Association, 2009).
Chernobyl was most definitely a preventable disaster (Frot, 2004). Even though the RBMK design was perhaps not the safest reactor design, it still would not have exploded had the people involved taken the appropriate precautions necessary (Medvedev, 1990, p. 73). The technical failure of Chernobyl was due to extreme pressure increases along with design malfunctions. However, that was not the only cause. The engineers in charge of Chernobyl were also suppressed by the Soviet bureaucracy who did not allow for time to be "wasted" on such things as safety, focusing much more time on advancement and cutting costs (Frot, 2004). Hence, the engineers and workers at the power plant were not rigorously trained in safety nor did they regard safety as paramount (Medvedev, 1990, p. 70).
The Chernobyl Disaster left a devastating impact on the people and the surrounding environment. Improper technique, untrained personnel, and lack of oversight all contributed to this disaster. As engineers or aspiring engineers, it is our duty to understand the potential impacts of our design decisions. Not the least of which is the attention to safety. If a culture of safety is not cultivated then disasters such as Chernobyl will become possible realities. On the other hand, if a culture of safety is cultivated then disasters such as Chernobyl will become easily preventable.
Frot, Jacques. The Causes of the Chernobyl Event. (2004). Retrieved 16 February, 2010, from
International Atomic Energy Agency. Frequently Asked Questions about Chernobyl. (2006).
Retrieved 16 February, 2010, from http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Features/Chernobyl-15/cherno-faq.shtml.
Medvedev, Zhores. (1992). The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. (2008). Retrieved 16 February, 2010, from http://www.bentan.me/chernobyl/?page.
World Nuclear Association. Chernobyl Accident. (2009). Retrieved 16 February, 2010, from http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/chernobyl/inf07.html.
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