In the HBO miniseries Chernobyl (spoiler alert: not a lot of giggles in this one), the grand
finale, the docudrama’s denouement, if you will, is a courtroom scene where our protagonist explains with eloquently dumbed-down words and ironically childlike props that the safe operation of a nuclear reactor boils down to one concept.
Because, as we learn, radiation levels only exist in one of two states: they’re either increasing or decreasing. So, in order keep things from going all, uh, Chernobyl on you, you have to constantly monitor and adjust, adjust and monitor. It’s the ultimate game of Goldilocks, and considering this porridge is made of enough plutonium to blow a hole through the earth’s core, you have to ensure everything is… just right.
Here’s how it works when it works: Radiation is generated through the splitting and smashing of uranium atoms, with the levels modulated via the inserting and retracting of boron rods in the core of the reactor. This creates steam, which turns a turbine, which generates additional radiation, which is lowered by the circulating of cool water. Graphite slams the gas pedal yet again, while Xenon (which is literally a gas) pumps the brakes.
Up and down, down and up. Ebbing and flowing, flowing and ebbing. Never perfectly still, and never oscillating wildly one way or the other.
“This is the invisible dance that powers entire cities without smoke or flame,” he says. “And it is quite beautiful… when things are normal.”
When things are balanced.
Of course, the lesson of Chernobyl is one of imbalance. Or arrogance. Of CYA’ing. Of mistakes and miscalculations and blind adherence to authority.
So, what exactly went wrong on that fateful day in April 1986? And what can we extract from those lessons to prevent similar meltdown in our own careers?
Metaphorically, of course.
Let’s find out.
Oh the Irony
The worst disaster in the history of nuclear power was caused by:
- A) Earthquake
- B) Military strike
- C) Homer Simpson in Sector 7G
- D) Safety drill
Doh! The answer is D.
When the No. 4 reactor at Chernobyl exploded, operators were engaged in a routine routine that simulated an unexpected shutdown of power. The old what-happens-when-a-power-plant-has-no-power type of deal. For the same reason airplane pilots practice flying and landing when the engines conk out: to be prepared.
But when the turbine was running at low speed and radiation levels began to rise suddenly and violently, the natural reaction was to hit the “Scram” button, which jammed every boron rod into the reactor core top fission in its track.
Except it had the opposite effect. Because the tips of the rods were made of graphite (more about that later), and graphite accelerates radiation, the singular maneuver designed to douse the flames actually poured gasoline on them.
The lesson: When doing anything at work, beware not only of the consequences you didn’t intend, but that the consequences may literally be the opposite of what you set out to achieve.
Frugality has its place. Yes, yes, it’s reasonably reasonable to drive across town to save 30 cents on a gallon of gas—or even 3 cents for that matter—or to wait until Memorial Day to get a deal on bedsheets or whatever, but no, no, it’s certainly suicidal to cut corners or pinch pennies on something that could blow a hole in the core of the earth.
Like, say, a nuclear power plant.
But that’s what happened. Researchers say the cooling rods used in Soviet reactors at the time were not 100 percent boron. They were kind of a blend (think: cashmere vs. cashmere/cotton) with tips made of graphite. While this did indeed save money—who knew boron was so pricey?—it literally triggered the horrifying chain reaction described above. When the reactor experienced a rapid rise in radioactivity during the test, operators—as they were trained—hit the button that force-fed all the rods into the reactor at the same time. But—and buts don’t get much bigger—when those graphite tips touched first, it was game over.
The lesson: No matter the resource (human, material, intellectual, creative), pay for the best and you’ll only cry once.
Fix the Problem
Not the blame.
From Watergate to Deflategate—and every gate in between—the cover-up is invariably worse than the crime.
Same with Chernobyl.
Despite unleashing more radioactivity into the atmosphere than 400 Hiroshima bombs detonated simultaneously, the Soviet government did its best to, well, how do you say “sweep under the rug” in Russian? Stories abound about the KGB intimidating scientists to suppress the truth, about tampering with soil samples taken by international agencies after the fact, about minimizing the loss of human life.
In the end, it’s the reason “Chernobyl” haunts the way it does—as it’s as much about human failing as it is a mechanical one.
The lesson: When you make a mistake at work, don’t try to bury it. Come clean. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to truth,” our protagonist says in the same scene. “Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”