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The 'white overalls' of overconfidence.

The "white overalls' of overconfidence

After so many years of accident-free, "nominal' technological performances, the timing of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, amidst three U.S. space program failures, reminds us of something we tend to forget: Even the highest technology is operated by human beings. And it appears there was a similar, tragic behavior pattern of overconfidence, even arrogance, on the part of those who operate and oversee these systems in both countries.

It is clear now that some officials within NASA were aware of potential problems that could occur if the Challenger were launched in cold weather. Nevertheless, the launch took place and the "unthinkable' happened. The loss of Challenger, coupled with the failure last month of a Titan 34D and last week's explosion of an unmanned Delta rocket, is a blow from which NASA may not fully recover for decades. It will also take a long time to completely unravel the reasons why Challenger was launched that day, but among them almost certainly are the false sense of security and the disdain for public scrutiny that can come with success.

This attitude is also chillingly evident in a feature article on the Chernobyl plant in the February 1986 SOVIET LIFE magazine, a USSR-sponsored publication. In it, the Soviets took a care-free, whistling-past-the-graveyard look at the plant and the town of Pripyat, which was born with the startup of Chernobyl in 1977. In what may have been history's worst-timed piece of public relations, the Soviet publication quoted Pyotr Bondarenko, a shift superintendent specializing in safety review, as saying "that working at the [Chernobyl] station is safer than driving a car.'

Twenty-nine-year-old Boris Chernov, a Chernobyl steam turbine operator, told SOVIET LIFE, "I wasn't afraid to take a job at a nuclear power plant. There is more emotion in fear of nuclear power plants than real danger. I work in white overalls. The air is clean and fresh; it's filtered most carefully. My workplace is checked by the radiation control service. If there is the slightest deviation from the norm, the sensors will set off an alarm on the central control panel.'

One can only wonder about the physical conditions of these two men today. The Soviet government--to its own detriment, as well as to that of surrounding countries experiencing higher-than-normal radiation levels--has carried its charade over into the weeks following the accident, maintaining that death, injury and harm to the environment have been relatively minimal.

The Soviet stonewalling contrasts greatly, of course, with the widespread and continuing public inquiry of NASA in the wake of the shuttle disaster and the Titan and Delta failures. What has been exposed, however, is a similar-- albeit more subtle--attitude on the part of some of those charged with the safety and performance of the shuttle. The public trust gained through the successful Apollo, Skylab and Viking programs was abused by those who would cut corners for time, money or other reasons. This may not have been totally intentional. Such people may have actually come to believe what many of us did: that NASA was indeed invincible, that everything, no matter what, would always be "nominal.' But the NASA and Chernobyl tragedies dictate a new attitude, a new caution, a new attention to detail regarding high technology.

One wishes that the words of Pripyat Mayor Vladimir Voloshko in SOVIET LIFE did not bear such sorrowful irony. The only problems in a town surrounding a nuclear reactor, he said, were "teething problems. Pripyat is currently experiencing a baby boom. [The] day-care centers and nursery schools . . . can't cope with the demand.'
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Title Annotation:recent failures of high technology
Author:Greenberg, Joel
Publication:Science News
Date:May 10, 1986
Words:595
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