Story of Human Errors in the Chernobyl Disaster

The Chernobyl nuclear accident disaster occurred on April 26, 1986, at the No. 4 nuclear reactors in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located near the city of Pripyat in the north of Ukraine in the former Soviet Union.

The disaster happened after a safety test went wrong and caused an explosion that blew up part of reactor number 4. The explosion caused a fire that burned for more than a week. A cloud of radiation was released into the atmosphere. The radiation spread across the local area and over large parts of Europe. According to some reports, the amount of radioactive material was estimated to be 400 times more than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The cause of the Chernobyl Disaster is attributed to “human error” and mismanagement of nuclear power plant control room.

An exclusion zone of nineteen miles was defined around the plant in all directions around Chernobyl, which was then abandoned. Soon after, this area became a ghost town with buildings left to rot and almost all humans fleeing for their lives. The disaster is also considered to be one of the causes that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Over thirty-three years have passed since this disaster. A recent HBO miniseries “Chernobyl,” written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, has brought the disaster back into the spotlight with an on-screen fictionalized version of the accident and the events that followed. Although this miniseries is not a documentary, it depicts this disaster and how it happened with some accuracy, including how the accident occurred, the political impact, the accident investigation, and rescue/cleanup actions. Chernobyl has received 19 Emmy nominations, and received an impressive number of viewers, over 1.9 million viewers, on May 6, 2019 (Adalian 2019).

However, the miniseries is not free of errors. The New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen pointed out some of the flaws in an article, noting minor issues such as how schoolchildren wore a holiday uniform on a non-holiday and how teenagers are shown carrying little kids’ school bags, as well as voicing larger critiques about how the Soviet Union’s system is portrayed (Masha Gessen 2019).

As discussed in the show, the following investigation of the disaster “revealed that a good majority of these incidents are caused by a combination of many factors whose roots can be found in the lack of human factors (micro- and macroergonomics) considerations” (Meshkati 1991). Consequently, in the fields of human factors and ergonomics, this catastrophic accident is regarded as an example of how human factors are essential in the design and organization of control systems. In his book “Midnight in Chernobyl”, the journalist Adam Higginbotham, who has spent years investigating the causes of the accident, summarizes that “design flaws, human hubris and Soviet secrecy all contributed to the disaster” (Adam Higginbotham, NPR Fresh Air 2019). Higginbotham’s new book provides a more detailed view of this huge disaster of the twentieth century.

“Chernobyl” is an excellent entertaining, informative media material for the general public to better understand the issues in nuclear technology and the consequence of human error. It is also a good training resource for human factor professionals dealing with safety.

Abbas Moallem, Ph.D.

HCI International NEWS – September 2019 – Number 97

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Chernobyl: dramatizes the story of the 1986 nuclear accident created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck for HBO. Produced by HBO in association with Sky UK, Starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson, May 6, 2019

Josef Adalian (2019): “

How Chernobyl Became HBO’s Surprise Monday-Night Hit“, Vulture.com, June 4, 2019.

Masha Gessen (2019): What HBO’s “Chernobyl” Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong, The New Yorker, June 4, 2019

Najmedin Meshkati (1991: “Human Factors in Large-Scale Technological Systems’ Accidents: Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Chernobyl,” Industrial Crisis Quarterly,” Vol. 5, 131-15

Fresh Air, NPR, Uncovering The Story Of Chernobyl, July 2, 2019.

Adam Higginbotham (2019): Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, Simon & Schuster (February 2019), 560 pages, ISBN13: 9781501134616

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