by Konstantin Zhukov
This week has marked the end of HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl. The series has been a success holding the top position in the IMDB’s ranking of top rated shows, and rightly so. The viewers are presented with a dramatic account of the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant that exposed thousands to dangerous radiation and forced (over time) a total population of 200,000 people to be displaced.
While watching the show one could not resist but feel sorrow for affected families who incurred potentially harmful doses of radiation and had to abandon their homes. But the feeling of sorrow soon turns into a rush of anger when seeing liquidators – workers involved in the cleaning-up, steadily increasing to close to 600,000 – risking their lives through contact with radiation. All because of, as manifested in the series, criminal negligence and the subsequent mistakes committed by the plant’s operators, reactor’s designers and governmental bureaucracy.
Once emotions subside, one comes to the conclusion that in order to honor people’s bravery and sacrifices, we must learn from the mistakes as to never repeat them again. Otherwise people’s sufferings would be spared for nothing. Hence, we need to realize that undoubtedly beneficial, nuclear energy must be treated with great care. That is, with the care that could not be provided by the central authority which lacks the incentives to act accountable and which often treats its citizens’ welfare below its utopian aspirations.
We often hear about the omniscience and benevolence of governmental bureaucracy. Those who control the economic order necessarily do so for the good of common folks – they care so much about our well-being! And of course, they are the experts with the best available knowledge and will put it to right use.
Except that this is not the case. While there are certainly bureaucrats with virtuous intentions and some of them might indeed possess superior technological knowledge, their actions inevitably stumble over economics realities. And the realities are such that a centralized economic system does not have – for the lack of strong property rights – an effective price system that serves as a guide to individuals’ actions. Instead, people must refer to arbitrary standards set by some authority that might not necessarily prioritize safety. As a result, transfer of relevant information becomes increasingly complicated, hence leading to a lack of responsibility and a potentially hazardous chain of decisions.
To see that the Chernobyl disaster is yet another dramatic, heartbreaking example of extreme economic centralization, we need to look at the circumstances leading up to the event.
The RBMK reactor 4 exploded on the early morning of April 26, 1986. According to the safety report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the accident was possible primarily due to inherent problems associated with the reactor’s controls and protection system that failed to meet any existing “Western” standards at the time. These flaws could under circumstances unknown until Chernobyl make the RBMK reactor highly unstable. Reactor designers knew well of the reactor’s defects, yet failed to estimate the critical point at which reactor would become unstable. More importantly, however, designers did not report the problems in any documentation. Thus, they exposed hundreds of thousands – since reactors of Chernobyl type were in operation in four other cities – to potential radioactive fallout. All the while preparing citizens to the nuclear strike by “the evil imperialist West.”
At this point one might wonder whether the Soviets that were obsessed with regulation and control had any regulatory body in place to oversee approval of the reactor design. As it turns out, construction of the reactor and accompanied nuclear plants was approved by regulatory Soviet authorities. Never mind that after Chernobyl, the Soviet Commission found gross violations in the very standards and procedures that authorities used to evaluate safety of the reactor and nuclear plant.
In addition to criminal negligence on the part of reactor designers and violations in all relevant regulations, there was a lack of communication among entities within the same sphere. Prior to the Chernobyl accident in 1986, RBMK reactors showed its defects first at Leningrad in 1975 and then at Chernobyl in 1982. The accident of 1975 was said to be a precursor to the latest accident in Chernobyl, but Leningrad did not communicate its findings to Chernobyl that had the same type of reactor running.
On top of this mess is the lack of safety culture throughout at least the whole Soviet nuclear industry that portrayed itself in the Chernobyl disaster. Chernobyl plant operators’ violations created favorable conditions for the inherent weaknesses of the reactor to manifest themselves in the most horrendous ways – explosion. And though it would be wrong to place all the blame on plant operators – they were not informed about reactor’s instability, operators nevertheless made unapproved changes in the test procedures that compromised emergency protection.
Finally, the Soviet’s late response to the disaster serves as an ultimate example of central economic organization’s fallibility. The state concealed as long as it could the explosion and postponed evacuation of Chernobyl’s vicinity.
In the end, we must commemorate those who lost their lives and health as a result of Chernobyl, as well as those who courageously worked to mitigate the effects of the disaster. The best way to honor these sacrifices would be to understand the underlying cause, namely a monstrous, inhumane, bureaucratic machine, so to avoid it from happening again.
Konstantin Zhukov is an intern at the Austrian Economics Center. He holds a Master’s of Arts in Economics from Troy University.