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Engineering Disaster: Explosion at the Chernobyl NPP

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The world of engineering has been forever changed since the Chernobyl disaster. The blast of Chernobyl nuclear plant paved way for the modern engineering to adapt safety as a priority and that irrespective of any consequence, condition or situation, safety of the people shall never be compromised. Consequently, engineering fields such as safety engineering have been derived where safety engineering is defined as: “Safety engineering is the process of designing workplaces to prevent accidents. Engineering safety concepts provides detailed approaches and modes for accident reduction by using a risk management process to identify and 'design out' hazards” (Safety Services, 2018). The former town of Chernobyl was situated about 130 km to the north of Kiev, Ukraine. It has been roughly estimated that the number of people within 30 km of the complex is between 115,000 and 135,000 (Ryan, 2019). As a result, a large mass of people was exposed to dangerous levels of radiation some of them nearing a figure of 60 died at the spot and some were observed to die at a later age. Although, it is still unclear whether their deaths were due to radiation contact or not (World Nuclear Association, 2019).

Technical and Engineering Issues

The Chernobyl power plant was based on fission reactions. Fission reactions are chain reactions in which a slow-moving neutron is absorbed by a highly radioactive element such as Uranium-235 resulting in the spilt of Uranium into two more highly radioactive elements Kr-89 and Ba-144. If there is an excess of neutrons, the resultant elements from the initial reaction will absorb the neutrons giving rise to a highly energetic and explosive Chain reaction which, if controlled, serves as an ideal source of energy (Freuden Rich, 2020).

In order to control these reactions, reactors are needed. Similar reactors were built by the USSR in 1980 named RBMK-1000 and RBMK-1500. The only difference between the two is the capacity. The former has 1000MW and the latter has 1500MW capacity. These reactors also used enriched uranium for fuel but in these reactors, graphite rods were used which absorbed the bouncing neutrons and hence the neutrons available for the chain reaction would be lessened decreasing the rate of reaction. The number of rods would be altered to control the rate of reaction. Finally, Water would run through the whole reactor as a coolant.

Characteristics of RBMK-1000

The RBMK-1000 reactor was not a traditional reactor. It had a propensity to generate humungous amount of uncontrollable energy in sudden burst if steams or bubbles named as ‘voids’ were allowed to form in the reactor core. As a result, a potential explosion could be foreseen but still no arrangements or amendments were made to the design as the scientists and operators stationed were neither equipped well enough for handling the reactor nor for looking at the reactor with a deep insight. The second major flaw of the RMBK-1000 reactor was probably the biggest one. In modern day nuclear engineering, control rods are made of cadmium which slows down the fission reaction but with respect to the Chernobyl reactor. The Control rod was made of graphite which is a good absorbent if it does not come in direct contact but the control had a tip to stop the cooling water from vacating the reactor as the rod was withdrawn but the problem with the Chernobyl specific rod was that it had a graphite tip too. Graphite is a highly reactive element and for a fission reaction to take place in a vicinity where a highly reactive element exists would always lead to disaster and such was the case with the Chernobyl reactor (Gillette, 1986). “Now in Chernobyl, the problem was that they removed the control rods even further than they were supposed to ever be removed. They removed the rods so far that the channels started to fill with water. Then when they SCRAMED the reactor, the first thing that happened was they displaced that water, essential removing a weak control rod, and thus increased the power. In order to remove the control rods as far as they did, the operators had to physically disable safety systems that prevented the rods from being removed that far. Second, the graphite tips give a more even neutron flux than a water filled channel. As a result, your reactor has a more uniform temperature (less hot/cold spots), you fuel has a more uniform burn-up, you have more uniform stresses across your reactor, etc. All of which are desirable” (International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group, 1992).

Reasons Behind the Flawed Design

Factors due to which the disaster took place are both political and financial. Total cost minimization is a manufacturing technique through which Manufacturers opt to establish such a system which is both efficient and cheaper but the implementation of such an infrastructure is extremely complicated. Such was the case with Chernobyl reactor. Chernobyl reactor used graphite for control rods. Now graphite is a much cheaper element than its better alternatives such as cadmium which is used in the modern-day nuclear reactors. Hence using graphite for control rods tips led to the explosion. Another reason behind this catastrophe was the time at which the nuclear power plant was under construction, there were upcoming USSR elections so the process of the development of the plant was unnecessarily sped up to gain the masses favor and a commercial product in the shape of graphite was used instead of a non-commercial but much safer alternative.

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Government’s Response

At the time of the Disaster, Ukraine was part of Russia which was by the USSR government also known as the Soviet Union. Attributable to complications as a result of the Cold War and bad relationship with the west, the government tried to keep this disaster quiet. Anatoly Dyatlov who was the chief engineer and the supervisor of the facility at the time refused to believe that there had been an explosion despite heavy evidence pointing towards the contrary. After the government realized that the RBMK-1000 had exploded, a commission led by Valery Legasov Deputy Director of Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy was headed to Chernobyl. They reached Chernobyl on the 26th and by that time, 3 firemen had died and many were in the hospital. Afterwards, the commission evaluated the radiation levels due to the explosion at reactor 4 and the result was shockingly bad. This news did not sound to the USSR government. Immediately, in order to keep the news in the country, television and electronic media were shut down and borders were closed off. However, another nuclear institution in Sweden 1000 km west of detected unusual levels of Radiation and the USSR’s disaster was exposed to the world. As a result, the area surrounding the plant including town of Chernobyl and Pripyat were evacuated.

Ethical Measures Which Could Have Prevented the Disaster

The disaster was a wake-up call for the engineering world. Nowadays, various establishments are ardent towards making sure engineering is practiced in the right way. Two such organizations exist in Canada, Ontario. OSPE abbreviation for Ontario’s society of Professional Engineering and PEO abbreviation for Professional Engineers Ontario. Their duty is to make sure engineering in Canada is performed with uttermost care and responsibility. If following measure enlisted in the PEO code of ethics were taken, the tragedy could have been avoided.

A Practitioner Shall Prioritize Public Welfare

The USSR government took an unnecessary risk with the design. Using graphite instead of cadmium and avoiding the extra cost was an enormous compromise on the public safety. Anatloy Dylatov, the chief-engineer refused to believe that his plant could explode. His ignorance led to the disaster ruining thousands of lives. If he had prioritized public welfare over mere thousand dollars, Chernobyl would be one of the best nuclear facilities in the world.

A Practitioner Shall Treat Employers, Employees and Co-Workers with Fair Respect

Anatoly Dylatov, growing up in a rough USSR environment, did not know how to look beyond himself. Before the disaster, when the operators had seen early signs of an unstable reactor, Anatoly rejected to believe a word they said. He did not see their opinion worthy of consideration. This disbelief in the co-worker’s ability led to the disaster and the USSR lost more than just a mere nuclear power plant.

A Practitioner Shall Be Loyal and Fair to the Employer.

Anatoly was appointed by the government to supervise the Chernobyl project. But his dedication was more to himself rather than the government. He wanted to have the best nuclear facility in the world but in this blind hunger, he did not consider the duty he had towards the government to make sure the facility survives. On the night of 25th, when he observed the power output to be unusually high, he did not engage safety procedures as instructed by the rules. He was ignorant, arrogant and cost both himself and his country more than they could both afford.


Fundamentally, engineering is a sensitive field where if errors occur, lives are lost and resources are wasted. The disaster of Chernobyl brought forth the world a new dynamic where safety of the public is uttermost. Nowadays, organizations exist as predators hunting down any engineer who does not comply with the code of ethics. These organizations are reinforced by the law and any violation can result in huge fines and cancellation of engineering license. Hence, following these codes of ethics will result in the prosperity of the country and a much safer environment. With any luck, we’ll see engineering prospering and engineers enforcing public welfare.


  1. Ryan, Jackson. (2019, June 7). Chernobyl: Why Did the Nuclear Reactor Explode and Could It Happen Again? CNET.
  2. Safety Services. (2019). Engineering Safety Concepts p. 1. Safety Info.
  3. World Nuclear Association. (2019, June). Chernobyl Accident 1986.
  4. FreudenRich, Craig. (2020, Jan 27). How Nuclear Fission Reactors Work. How Stuff Works?
  5. Uranium Fission Reaction.
  6. Malko V, Mikael. (2002). The Chernobyl Reactor: Design Features and Reasons for Accident. Joint Institute of Power and Nuclear Research, National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.
  7. Gilette, Robert. (1986, Aug 23). Chernobyl Design Flaws Made Accident Worse, Soviet Report Concedes. Los Angeles Times.
  8. International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group. (1992) THE CHERNOBYL ACCIDENT: UPDATING OF INSAG.
  9. RBMK-1000 Reactor Diagram.
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Engineering Disaster: Explosion at the Chernobyl NPP. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2023, from
“Engineering Disaster: Explosion at the Chernobyl NPP.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Engineering Disaster: Explosion at the Chernobyl NPP. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 4 Dec. 2023].
Engineering Disaster: Explosion at the Chernobyl NPP [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2023 Dec 4]. Available from:
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