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Chernobyl as a Major Engineering Disaster

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Which industry is the safest and most trusted in the world? The answer is no profession or industry system in the world that can guarantee zero accident rates, such as healthcare, manufacturing or engineering. unimaginable disasters always happen, it causes new generation of engineers have to study the reasons for their emergence and increase related of ethic of engineering to avoid any accident as much as possible. People in engineering believe trial and error are a way to move engineer’s abilities forward, however, the cost is sometimes unimaginable. When a disaster is caused by an engineering failure, we call it an engineering disaster. For example, the sinking of the Titanic was one of the most famous engineering accidents. The cause of the accident was the failure of the quality of the rivets and the sealed compartment was not individually sealed (Pruitt, 2018). After the accident, 1,500 people dead and the total number of people on this ship is only 2,208 (Praveen, 2020). Therefore, the Titanic is one of the most important engineering disasters worthy of the attention of future generations of engineers. On the one hand, practices and disasters push for engineering to deeply study the damage mechanism of materials in order to control severe engineering disasters. On the other hand, the moral standards of engineers have been repeatedly stressed due to various serious accidents. The purpose of this paper is to take another major engineering accident as a case study, namely Chernobyl, to explore the possibility of this engineering disaster occurring after the engineers clearly applied the ethical standards. The paper will introduce the disaster background of the nuclear power accident, its causes, the moral issues of the engineers involved, and a summary of the former Soviet government’s response to the disaster. Finally, the paper will determine the engineering ethics that engineers should follow and the likelihood of avoiding case accidents after applying those ethics.

Principle of Nuclear

To understand the specific cause of Chernobyl, the basic principles of nuclear power plants cannot be bypassed. The reason why nuclear power plants can generate electricity comes from nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is produced by nuclear fission, which is a chain reaction. The reaction principle is that a uranium 235 hits a neutron to obtain a barium 56-141 and plutonium 36-92 and three neutrons. The high-energy opportunity created by nuclear fission is that whenever uranium 235 reacts with one neutron, three additional neutrons are generated. And three other neutrons will react with three uranium 235 to produce nine neutrons. Thus, in this process, a large amount of energy is generated, which exists in the form of heat. Engineers use steam engines to capture thermal energy to drive generators to generate electricity (Vyas, 2019).

The principle of Chernobyl’s nuclear power generation is similar to that described above. Its principle name is graphite boiling water reactor (also called RBMK). In such a reactor, there are a fuel rod (uranium 235) and flowing water, and the graphite inserted in the fuel rod is also called a control rod. Water as a coolant can take away a large amount of heat in the reaction, which can be transferred from a steam engine to a generator to generate electricity. Therefore, if engineers want to generate electricity all the time, cold water must be injected all the time. This requires that the device for injecting cold water must always work and cannot be powered off. In addition, the function of the control rod is to reduce the reaction rate of the nuclear reactor, because graphite can absorb neutrons, the number of neutrons decreases, the reaction rate decreases, and the temperature decreases (Viswanathan, 2016).

Accident Background

The accident happened during a test. The test object is the power failure protection capability of the nuclear reactor. The principle is that when all devices are powered off immediately, all control rods are fully inserted into the fuel rod and all neutrons are absorbed. The reaction will not stop immediately because two other products are still being formed, namely barium 56-141 and thorium 36-92. Therefore, the heat will not drop immediately, at this time, it is required that the water must still be flowing. Engineers can use diesel generators as an alternative power supply system to generate electricity for them. However, the start-up time of a diesel generator takes one minute. Within this minute, the problem of ensuring the electricity consumption of water installations has become a core technical issue. Therefore, some engineers proposed that using the waste heat of the nuclear reactor to make the engine turbine inertially rotate, it may be possible to ensure that the water device can use electricity for one minute. Whether the inertia of the engine is used to generate electricity within a minute to avoid reactor meltdown is a test that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant will do on the day of the accident (Chernobyl Accident, 2020).


The plan was originally scheduled to take place during the day on April 25, 1982. Unfortunately, a power station in the local city tripped. As a result, the power station required nuclear power plants to postpone testing. Because testing needs to reduce the amount of power generated by nuclear power plants, the entire city is likely to lose power. So, the plan had to be postponed until evening. This became the turning point of the accident of the day. The engineers were anxious to get off work, so at 00:00 on the 26th, the power of the reactor was reduced. The descent was too rapid and the reactor was poisoned. Reactor poisoning is the production of a substance called xenon 135 during the reaction, which is easy to combine with neutrons to generate xenon 136. This is another way to reduce neutrons in addition to graphite. As a result, the reactor power dropped sharply to a normal 5%. At this point, the engineers had two plans. One was to stop the test immediately, declare the experiment a failure, and start preparing for the next experiment. The other was to immediately increase the power of the reactor and continue the experiment. Unfortunately, the new acting chief engineer chose the latter option. He was anxious to raise the power, so he pulled out the control stick that exceeded the prescribed amount. As a result, the temperature of the nuclear reactor immediately rose. When engineers noticed that the tense was wrong, there were already signs of dissolution in the nuclear reactor and the control rods could not be fully inserted. So, the explosion happened (Chernobyl Accident, 2020).

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Breaches of Professional Ethics in This Case

First, throughout the test, the chief engineer showed an arrogant and eager attitude. So, throughout the course of the experiment, it was clear that his goal was to get the experiment done as quickly as possible and to try to make it successful when he took over the job even if it broke the rules and the ethics. He lost a fundamental position as an engineer, and social security was never considered by him in this test.

On the other hand, the other engineers present also violated the ethics of being an engineer. Under the pressure of the chief engineer, they still followed the wrong orders of the chief engineer even though they knew that the subsequent operation would cause great loss of life and property safety to the society and even to the neighboring countries, which eventually led to the tragedy. As engineers, they violate the most basic moral boundaries and have no courage to resist authority. This is what future generations of engineers should be most wary of. Because the greatest engineering tragedy in human history could have been avoided. All they need to do was just stop the test within safety limits.

The consequences of the disaster were exacerbated by the serious default of the former Soviet government. The government started to evacuate the surrounding citizens 36 hours after the explosion, but many citizens had been radiated at that time. Not only that, the explosion site has not been treated professionally, the surrounding European countries also did not know what happened, but just found a large number of pollutants in the air detection. After examining them one by one, it was determined that the source of the pollution was the former Russia.

Analysis and Summary of Chernobyl

Chernobyl can be summed up as a disaster caused by human error of engineers, but it is too expensive. Even more unfortunate, such a disaster should not have happened. Engineers should remember to ensure a rigorous scientific attitude under all circumstances,

The safety of life and property comes first. The blind pursuit of personal heroism and personal interests is unethical, and for the performers and creators of an important project, such shortcomings are even more lethal.


Engineering ethics should be more worthy of attention by engineers than technical mastery. Through the above Chernobyl accident analysis, it can be fully determined that if the engineers at the time had sufficient moral cultivation, this disaster would not happen. Just as engineers’ professional standards of ethics, engineers should use their knowledge and skills to promote the well-being of all humankind, and provide integrity to the public, employers, and customers with loyal services (Law Document English View, 2018).


  1. Praveen. (2020, February 4). ‘The World’s Worst Cruise Ship Disasters’. Retrieved from
  2. Pruitt, S. (2018, April 12). ‘Why Did the Titanic Sink?’ Retrieved from
  3. Vyas, K. (2019, November 16). Everything You Need to Know About Nuclear Power Plants. Retrieved from
  4. Viswanathan, B. (2016, September 2). Nuclear Fission. Retrieved from
  5. Law Document English View. (2018, November 19). Retrieved from
  6. Chernobyl Accident 1986. (2020, February). World Nuclear Association. Retrieved from

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Chernobyl as a Major Engineering Disaster. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 28, 2023, from
“Chernobyl as a Major Engineering Disaster.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Chernobyl as a Major Engineering Disaster. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Mar. 2023].
Chernobyl as a Major Engineering Disaster [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2023 Mar 28]. Available from:
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