“An international solution to an international problem”

Do you remember the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, back in 1986?

You may remember that after the fire fighting, a sarcophagus was placed over the reactor to contain the radiation and stop it spreading. Did you also know that, thirty years on, a second, additional enclosure was needed? There was an increasing risk that the tomb would collapse and fail. If this happened, the radiation would be able to escape again. The solution was a thrilling engineering accomplishment. The new enclosure, that’s the arch you can see in the photo, was erected in a safe location 180m away from the reactor. Once built, there was then the challenge of sliding it into place. The arch is huge – bigger than Wembley stadium and taller than the Statue of Liberty. The work was funded by many countries and presented as “an international solution to an international problem”. But is that really true?

Recently I went with my family on a two day tour of Chernobyl. I was working in Kiev for two weeks, it seemed an interesting if unusual thing to do for a family break afterwards.

Our guide told us the international funding was conditional on Ukraine closing down the other three reactors on the site. It had strings attached. Internationally, there are concerns about the safety of this particular reactor design. However the cost of all this work is entirely Ukraine’s. The costs of burying and managing the nuclear waste is all theirs too. No international funding for this it seems. I ended up feeling a bit sorry for Ukraine. After all, this all happened when Chernobyl was part of the Soviet Union. Maybe these costs are part of the price of Ukraine’s subsequent independence.

Unexpected costs and unexpected consequences are quite the thing at the moment, aren’t they. I am sure we are facing some of these with Brexit. I am also sure there will be implications for many decades to come from our vote. Maybe not all bad consequences either, but I do believe they will go on for a long time.

Is there a lesson in this? Maybe that the full costs of things, based on the entire life cycle, should be considered before making a decision?

Some experts believe that nuclear energy is the only viable alternative to fossil fuels. I do wonder if the full cost of our electricity is accepted, communicated and understood, including looking after the nuclear waste for decades to come. Do you think we are making honest and informed decisions about cost and risk?

Visiting Chernobyl was a moving experience for me in many other ways too. The abandoned town, Pripyat, is like an open air museum of the Soviet dream in 1986.

The Duga radar station, co-incidentally located in the Chernobyl exclusion zone and still intact, offers fascinating insight into Soviet-American relations from that time.

The Chernobyl museum in Kiev itself, almost a shrine to lives lost and damaged from radiation made me feel sick to the core. What I found most challenging was the Soviet reluctance to be open and honest about the scale and implications of the disaster.

The cause of the accident is now well written about, a test gone wrong, cooling rods which got stuck and did not lower. That’s the analysis at one level anyway – the technical view.

I’m guessing, but I’m imagining a command and control style of management was default at the time too. This would not help the operational team perform well or problem solve in an emergency. There are many case studies of significant safety risk and very high costs, human and financial, from accidents, when communication is poor or when you are not able to challenge your manager. The “blame game” typical in these sorts of situations can hinder true and genuine learning after the event as well.

Visiting Chernobyl is a sobering experience. In spite of all the many challenges though, the human spirit lives on. A visit to a self-settler – those who have come back in spite of radiation to live in the exclusion zone, some in extremely rural settings, added to the awe of our visit.

My choice to visit to Chernobyl was a broadening and life expanding experience, adding context to my role and work.

So I’m wondering, what might you choose for you?

How could a mind expanding experience benefit both your organisation and you?

Gill is a Leadership Developer, National Training Award winner and Master Executive Coach who loves working with groups of people to bring their learning alive.

If you are looking for a new associate or to add to your own internal team, get in touch. Gill is always interested in new possibilities to work together to create outstanding learning, changes in behaviour and results.

Gill and her family’s visit to Chernobyl was organised by SoloEast Travel, we recommend them to you.

Photo Credits: Martin How, Gill How and Solo East.

Must challenging upwards always be a conflict?
Who am I to you?
Gill How

About Gill How

Helping leaders grow, step up and deliver outstanding results

Leave a Reply