Photo credit: Rafal_Olechowski

Chernobyl’s lesson to leaders is always face the brutal facts of reality

Article originally published by the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 25, 2022. Revised 9:00am.

April 26th marks the 36th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. The disaster teaches the need to listen to the people reporting to you and to face the brutal facts of reality.

On this occasion of the event’s anniversary, I share additional reflections to a February 2021 article I wrote on the Chernobyl disaster.

Chernobyl is located about 60 miles from Kyiv, Ukraine. The disaster occurred when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

On Apr. 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., the core of reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded. Massive amounts of radiation were released across Europe. The accident resulted in numerous radiation-related deaths and parts of Ukraine and Belarus became uninhabitable. Hundreds of thousands of people had to be relocated.

The disaster was a result of an operational test on this RBMK reactor. Anatoly Dyatlov, deputy chief engineer at Chernobyl, committed to the power station hierarchy that he would personally supervise the test on the early morning shift of April 26.

The reactor was not in stable condition for the test to be conducted. Dyatlov ignored the safety concerns of the control room engineers. He intimidated and threatened them with the loss of their jobs if they did not proceed with the test. The engineers relented, and the test proceeded with disastrous results. 

In addition to Dyatlov, there was another villain in this disaster – a fundamental flaw in the RBMK reactor design. Because of the unstable condition of the reactor, there was an uncontrolled surge of power that led the engineers to hit the emergency shutdown button. 

Due to this design flaw, within seconds, the power spiked, vaporizing the reactor’s cooling water. When water turns to steam, it expands 1700 times its volume, which caused an explosion. This was followed seconds later by a much more massive hydrogen explosion.

The design flaw was known but kept as a state secret so as not to undermine the perceived superiority of Soviet nuclear technology. Dyatlov and the engineers running the test were never told about the design flaw. The same flaw existed in other RBMK nuclear reactors across the Soviet Union. 

This disaster was a result of hubris – refusing to recognize the brutal facts of reality that Soviet technology was much more dangerous than acknowledged by the Communist Party leadership. 

Photo credit: Rafal_Olechowski

One can’t help but think that similar hubris is apparent in the war launched by Russia against Ukraine. 

If Dyatlov was the villain of Chernobyl, Valery Legasov was the hero. Legasov was first deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. He was a persistent lone wolf, convincing the Communist bureaucracy to face the brutal facts of reality that the reactor core exploded, which at first they refused to believe.

Dyatlov’s trial was dramatically portrayed in a HBO miniseries on the disaster. During his testimony, Legasov revealed this design flaw in open court, to the shock of the judge and others in attendance. The judge cautioned Legasov, “If you mean to suggest that the Soviet state is somehow responsible for what happened, then I must warn you are treading on dangerous ground.” 

Legasov responded: “I have already trod on dangerous ground … Because of our secrets and our lies … Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes.”

Legasov committed suicide on the second anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. The transcript of audio tapes he recorded about the disaster were found, transcribed and disseminated after his suicide. These tapes forced the Soviet Union to retrofit the remaining RBMK reactors so an accident like Chernobyl could not happen again. Legasov was posthumously honored as Hero of the Russian Federation in 1996. 

Five years after the Chernobyl disaster, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev commented that the event led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a July 2019 article headlined, “Did Chernobyl kill communism?,” James Bloodworth writes, “Chernobyl and its fallout was the fruit of a system built on lies, patronage and a totalitarian ideology that would always place itself before the lives of its subjects.”

Chernobyl’s lesson to all leaders: Always face the brutal facts of reality. Remember the words of Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho, “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: Never lie to yourself.” And remember the words of Valery Legasov: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

 

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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