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Stages of crisis management

Various stages of crisis management are dependent on the specific nature of the accident. The essential variable is not, however, the magnitude of the crisis but the nature of "responsible" organizations involved. The management of a crisis that involves corporate responsibility will be essentially legal in nature, assuming that the corporate entity does not enjoy political (i.e. governmental) support. If, however, the "responsible" party is a government-controlled body, then the management of the crisis will be primarily, though not exclusively, political in nature. In simple terms, it is relatively easy to litigate against a corporate entity but far more difficult to sue a government.

Surprisingly, the character of the extant political system (e.g. democratic, totalitarian) probably has little impact on crisis management. The fact that the Chernobyl disaster occurred in the Soviet Union, a quasi-totalitarian state with a lengthy record of abuse of human rights, may not have been especially significant. The democratic government of the United States has proved notoriously capricious in similar cases, and the results of the Windscale disaster in Britain were classified for 30 years by order of the British government on the pretext that revelations about the accident might prejudice the US-UK alliance. It is also extremely difficult to achieve a legal settlement that pins blame on a government.

The political and legal responses of governments faced with crises like Chernobyl are remarkably similar. Typically, they deny the magnitude of the crisis and attempt to conceal or classify pertinent data, particularly that which relates to the short- and long-term health effects of that crisis. Governments do not willingly accept either legal or operational culpability for a disaster. In the case of Chernobyl, it is only within the past few years that the governments of Belarus and Ukraine have issued legal documents about compensation for residents of contaminated communities. The Soviet government never accepted full responsibility for the consequences of Chernobyl, especially its international aspects, which included a radioactive cloud that crossed Europe and caused extensive harm to communities in northern Scandinavia, southern Germany, and the uplands of Britain. In refusing to take the blame, the Soviet regime was following a path trodden by previous national governments.

Victims also have a role to play in crisis management. "Victim action" is a recurrent theme here, in both political and legal terms. Victim action can involve everything from a single individual all the way up to large-scale non-governmental organizations such as the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) or IAEA. But the same dynamic of interest groups and action is at work here also. In the case of Chernobyl, it is hardly surprising that the Ukrainian Green World environmental association took a far dimmer view of the accident than did the IAEA, whose mandate includes not only the international regulation of the nuclear power and nuclear weapons industries, but also the promotion of nuclear power.

In the same way, the response of the Ukrainian government to Chernobyl is best explained by political motives, or else by response to the existing political realities. Although the ramifications of Chernobyl were felt first in Ukraine, rather than in distant Moscow, the "victim" government chose not only to side with the responsible government (USSR), which ran the ministries responsible for construction of nuclear plants and nuclear energy production, but declined to take any significant form of independent action, including the prompt evacuation of villages and settlements near the damaged reactor. Perception plays a crucial role in the management of a crisis by victims as well as perpetrators.

Though not truly independent, the mass media comprise another important factor in crisis management. Despite suggestions to the contrary (e.g. the film The China Syndrome), the media rarely uncover a large-scale industrial accident. The media are mainly a reactive force, obliged to depend - often heavily - on information supplied by sources closely associated with the accident. As these situations are fast moving and rapidly changing, the media often report information which, under normal circumstances, they would reject as unsound or uncorroborated. During a rapidly unfolding crisis in which official information is severely restricted, the media may abdicate the editorial duties of weighing and assessing the value of information gained, preferring to resort to inflammatory headlines.39 How this occurred in the case of Chernobyl was illustrated by Time magazine:

A Dutch amateur radio enthusiast reported picking up a broadcast in which a distraught ham operator near Chernobyl announced that two units were ablaze and spoke of "many hundreds dead and wounded." In [this] account, the man cried, "We heard heavy explosions! You can't imagine what's happening here with all the deaths and fire.... I don't know if our leaders know what to do because this is a real disaster. Please tell the world to help us."

In the absence of any Soviet description of events at the time, this dramatic but unconfirmed account was seized on by the media and widely carried (Time, 12 May 1986: 28-29).

Sensational accounts sell copy, and few Western newspapers were immune to the tendency to indulge in hyperbolic descriptions of what was occurring at Chernobyl, as long as the authorities within the Soviet Union declined to present an alternative picture. The drab and censorious statement from Moscow - "Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident" - was a further factor in catalysing the furore in the West, and was equally misleading.

It is, therefore, clear that a large-scale "model" industrial accident is impossible to quantify. Much depends on the actions of responsible parties and the reaction of the victims. The key question is not how an accident is managed, but why it is managed in a particular fashion. The interest groups involved in any industrial accident fall into three categories - those deemed responsible (operators, plant managers); those deemed affected (victims); and an uncertain group, the media. In most industrial accidents the actions of each group are remarkably consistent and follow an identifiable pattern of conflict and, it is hoped, resolution. This section briefly examines the actions of the three key groups in some industrial accidents, both within the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

Three Mile Island, 1979

The accident at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, occurred at 4 a.m. on 28 March 1979. The company responsible for the plant's operation (Metropolitan Edison) released little information about the accident in the first hours and days after its occurrence. The evidence suggests that the company knew the accident was very serious, involving a partial core meltdown and failure of the primary containment vessel, with subsequent leakage of radioactive material into the reactor building. They would also have been aware that the reactor building was unlikely to prevent further leakage into the outside atmosphere (Rubin 1982: 131-141). Indeed, it is widely believed that Metropolitan Edison already knew that radioactive particles were entering the atmosphere even as they held their first news conference about 12 hours after the accident. Yet they decided not to inform the public of this fact. Later, when pressed, an official of the company admitted that he had not mentioned any releases into the environment "because he had not been asked directly about them" (Rubin 1982: 133).

One critic has pointed out that this reticence broke the first rule of effective public relations: when the news is bad, it should be published in full as quickly as possible (Rubin 1982: 133). Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Edison company chose to withhold information that was perceived as being in the vital interests of the general public once it finally became available. This produced a cascade effect in the company's dealings with the media in particular and the public in general. Once people realized that they had been deceived, they were less inclined to accept any information subsequently released by the company. A confrontational stance was preferred.

A US government study released after the accident found that the situation worsened when some officials of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chose to support Metropolitan Edison's position and adopted an "optimistic tone," despite the fact that news about the seriousness of the accident was already surfacing in the media (President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island 1979). With the credibility of both Metropolitan Edison and the NRC damaged, pro-nuclear interest groups suffered a major public relations setback from which they never recovered. Anti-nuclear sentiments could now be voiced in a more confident way. As David M. Rubin pointed out, "One way or another the reporters were going to get a story. If the utility was not going to provide facts (as it did not), reporters would turn to other sources" (Rubin 1982: 136).

Information about TMI that appeared in the media therefore consisted of "informed speculation," often from sources within the antinuclear movement and often of an alarmist character. Since the information was not printed with any qualification, the public was unable to determine its accuracy. Moreover, the media had not reported on nuclear accidents hitherto and so had little experience in evaluating the information they were disseminating. One result was widespread confusion and long-term distrust of the nuclear energy industry.

Despite the blunder committed by officials from both Metropolitan Edison and the NRC, the practice of downplaying accidents continues in the nuclear industry. As far as possible, spokespersons for nuclear installations tend to minimize the seriousness of accidents and maintain a "healthy optimism" about efforts to "remove (the) consequences." The TMI experience illustrated a problem involving the accurate communication of information in an emergency. This legacy soon had reverberations. In March 1981, when there was a serious leakage of radioactive waste water from a nuclear power plant in Tsuruga, Japan, the operating company did not disclose the seriousness of the accident until radiation was detected in a nearby bay six weeks later (Time, 12 May 1986).

The international nuclear energy industry's response to Chernobyl

The response of the international nuclear energy industry to Chernobyl is particularly instructive because it demonstrates how an embattled industry sought to minimize the repercussions of a disaster. The industry adopted three different interpretations of the accident and shifted among them as they became untenable. In every case, criticisms were launched against vocal groups opposed to nuclear energy, accusing them of scaremongering, alarmism, and a lack of expertise. These groups, for their part, labelled the nuclear industry's attempts to downplay the magnitude of the crisis as "chicanery" and "duplicity."

The first interpretive strategy appeared immediately after the accident at Chernobyl became known in the West. Technical analyses of the accident were extremely conservative. For example, the June 1986 issue of Atom, the magazine of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), reported that a "significant radiation release occurred" at Chernobyl. But, reassuringly, it was immediately stressed that the "reactor is of a unique design not found outside the USSR. Its safety and operating characteristics are quite unlike those of any UK reactor" (Atom No. 356, June 1986: 29). As if this was not calming enough, the subsequent issue of the magazine contained a report written by Dr. J.H. Gittus, the Director of the UKAEA's Safety and Reliability Directorate, that discussed the radioactive plume released from Chernobyl and carried by wind over Britain. Gittus concluded that:

The real difference between the [radiation] exposures from natural background and from the Chernobyl accident is that those from Chernobyl will cease in a relatively short time; those from background sources will continue forever and are part and parcel of man's natural environment. (Atom No. 357, July 1986: 17)

Again, this sort of response follows the pattern seen at TMI: optimistic predictions about the accident were made with the objective of defusing the issues.

A concomitant tactic in this sort of response is to denigrate authors of conflicting views. Thus, reviewers in Atom were busy excoriating some of the "instant books" on Chernobyl that appeared in the summer of 1986. One, written by a team of journalists from the London Observer, was reviewed as follows: "It would be nice to describe this book on the Chernobyl accident as the 'worst book in the world'. [A play on the book's title, The Worst Accident in the World.] But it is merely one in a long tradition of anti-nuclear 'horror' books that manipulates facts and superstition towards the writers' apparent end of ridding the world of nuclear power" (Atom No. 359, September 1986: 27). Professor Jovan Jovanovich of the University of Manitoba, the lone Canadian representative on an international advisory committee to the IAEA, referred to what he termed "horror stories" about the disaster as "trash" (Winnipeg Free Press, 23 May 1991). His concern was that the media had sensationalized the consequences of Chernobyl but, in making his allegations, he may have underestimated the extent of the effects of the disaster.

The second interpretive strategy adopted by UK nuclear authorities ignored the radioactive plume that had drifted overhead and turned instead to the issue of Soviet reactor design and safety procedures. It was emphasized repeatedly that such an accident could never occur in a British nuclear establishment. The same line was adopted by the US Council for Energy Awareness, and maintained until at least 1991. Its Chernobyl Briefing Book (1991) stressed:

... the Chernobyl-type design is not used anywhere except the Soviet Union, and could not be licensed to operate in the United States or other industrial nations in the West and Far East.... The Chernobyl accident was a unique event, on a scale by itself. It was the first and only time in the history of commercial nuclear energy that people were killed. (US Council for Energy Awareness 1991: 1)40

The third interpretive strategy adopted by Western officials and supporters of the nuclear power industry was derived from a Soviet report to the IAEA in Vienna (August 1986). This highlighted operator error as the cause of the Chernobyl accident and (correctly) pointed out that several safety features designed to prevent such an accident were disconnected intentionally at the time of the reactor test on 25-26 April 1986. Not only was this fact seized upon by industry analysts; comparisons were immediately made to show that it would be impossible for operators to disconnect such a wide array of safety devices on a Western reactor, which would shut down automatically if such actions were attempted (Atom No. 368, June 1987: 8).

Finally, the Soviet government, in its international response to Chernobyl, permitted the IAEA to take on an unprecedented supervisory role. Members of the agency and its advisors were given unique access to the Chernobyl area and allowed to carry out tests and inspections of local residents. Professor Jovanovich might have been typical of those who took an optimistic view of the disaster's consequences:

... initially the Soviet authorities were handling the accident pretty much in the same old way, in isolation, out of sight of the world community. Thanks to socio-political changes that have occurred in the Soviet Union since the accident, the Soviet scientists and politicians, using the good offices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, got together with the international professional community and said "let us work together." Thus the International Chernobyl Project was born. In my view the greatest benefit and success of the ICP has been the fact that an open and sincere international collaboration has been established among recent Cold War adversaries... (Jovanovich 1991 [draft])

Once again, self-buttressing statements by supporters of the nuclear industry are apparent: witness the reference to an "international professional community." Within the industry, spokespersons are invariably referred to as "experts" or "professionals," while those outside the industry (who might be equally cognizant of the workings of nuclear plants or the effects of radiation) are dismissed as "nonspecialists," "environmentalists," or representatives of the media looking for horror stories.41


It is apparent that the various "actors" involved in civilian nuclear accidents act in a remarkably consistent fashion when confronted with a crisis. Those responsible attempt, as far as possible, to conceal the extent of the accident and to promulgate an optimistic view of the situation. Such a reaction, therefore, was not unique to the Soviet government after Chernobyl. This author has stated elsewhere that, as a test of glasnost in the USSR, Chernobyl was a failure.42 However, the reaction of the Soviet authorities - silence until confronted with incontrovertible proof that radiation had spread beyond the borders of the USSR - was not dissimilar to that of Metropolitan Edison in the case of TMI, or of the UKAEA after the fire at Windscale/Sellafield (President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island 1979). This does not mean that any of these organizations were overtly callous or reckless. The individuals involved most probably believed that the consequences of the respective accidents could be contained in secret, free from the attentions of troublesome and irresponsible media. In all three cases cited, the evident secrecy surrounding the accidents served to decrease public trust of the industry and to inflame the media and other interest groups.

The media reacted to the lack of information in two different ways. First, reporters began to speculate what might have happened. Such speculations included two reactor explosions at Chernobyl, mass graves for thousands of victims, a nuclear meltdown, and similar stories. Apart from the differing scale of events, this development paralleled what had happened after TMI seven years earlier. There, an unrelated fire that broke out the day after the accident was quickly reported as a reactor fuel fire. Metropolitan Edison was also reported to be burning radioactive material at night, out of the public eye. Both of these reports were false, but they were partly a result of failure to provide timely and accurate information.

Why did the authorities react in such a fashion? There are several possible reasons. The one that is most often cited (and it was referred to with regularity after Chernobyl) is that they wished to avoid panic among the population.43 Ivan Yemelyanov, one of the designers of the Chernobyl plant and a deputy director of the USSR Institute of Energy Technology, informed the Italian Communist Party newspaper, Unita, that selective information had been released about the accident in order to forestall panic (Marples 1986: 170). (Literature on human responses to disaster would suggest that generally confusion, shock, and trauma are more likely than outright panic, and the majority of the population in Pripyat appears to have conformed to this norm.) The most charitable explanation for holding May Day parades in Kiev and Minsk, only five days after the accident, is that the Ukrainian and Belarusian governments were anxious to portray life as "normal."

A second possibility is that such accidents trigger an inherent "self-protection" mechanism in an offending industry. Invidious comparisons with competing industries are often made. Thus, it was pointed out by nuclear advocates that human casualties in coal and oil production industries are consistently high. Four deaths per 1,000 tons of coal extracted is a often-cited toll for Soviet and post-Soviet coal industries (Marples 1991, ch. 7). In the same way, sympathizers of the nuclear industry also cite the damage caused to the environment by coal-fired power stations and note the comparative rarity of accidents in nuclear plants. The IAEA has been similarly protective, issuing a much-vaunted study of communities in Belarus and Ukraine in the summer of 1991 without examining the two most severely contaminated groups - clean-up crews and evacuees. Perhaps it is believed that accurate accounts would create a sensation in the media and that competing industries would escape similar scrutiny.

Third, there is the question of culpability. Few official spokespersons are willing to attribute a catastrophe to failed technology, because the public cannot be left with the perception that such sophisticated machines are fallible. Further, there is an understandable reluctance on the part of operators to take the blame for an accident. The greater the accident, the more likely it will result in dismissals, official inquiries, and shut-downs. If the accident, on the other hand, can be contained within a short period of time, with relatively few casualties, then the industry can still be considered competent and worthy of support. The culpability issue is one reason why the number of officially reported Chernobyl casualties remained at 31 long after even the most hardboiled officials acknowledged that the real figure was in the thousands.44 The reliance of Soviet authorities upon nuclear energy for future energy needs also depended on avoidance of culpability. Given the problems already being encountered in other energy resource industries, it was felt that the future of nuclear energy could not be compromised by providing a full account of what was then known about the Chernobyl accident.

Yet it should be reiterated that patterns of response are similar among all energy industries. Public affairs spokespersons are selected to provide assurances that the effects of an accident are limited and being eliminated. Radio and television reports from such people project an image of calm confidence. In this way the industry protects itself, like a mother sheltering her young. At Chernobyl, these various defence mechanisms were to be put to their severest test.

Suggestions for a general model of recovery from industrial accidents

In certain respects, Chernobyl was a unique accident that might have been avoided or mitigated by some precautionary measures. These include the use of less-combustible material on the roof of the reactor, immediate dispensation of potassium iodide tablets among population within a radius of at least 100 miles, provision of protective equipment at the reactor site, and establishment of dispensaries in nearby settlements. Suggestions for improving recovery are more difficult to make because many of Chernobyl's ramifications (e.g. tumours and leukaemias) still lie ahead. In light of these uncertainties the following remarks are tentative.

1. It would be useful to establish international safety norms for radiation and other consequences of industrial accidents, including contamination of soil and water. These would allow authorities to make prompt decisions about the evacuation of threatened communities. At Chernobyl, arguably, the initial area evacuated was much too small, while areas that at present have the right to be evacuated may be too large. An evacuation is an event of great stress that should be conducted only when absolutely necessary.45

2. It is necessary to provide facilities and personnel for accident response and evacuation in locations that are relatively close to the hazardous industrial enterprise (e.g. fire and first-aid crews; vehicular transportation). These resources should be provided before such an enterprise comes into operation. Such positioning requires answers to several questions: in the event of an emergency, how quickly could the entire workforce (and threatened others) be removed from the area; by what means; to which localities might they be moved? Scientists cannot possibly foresee every major accident, but planners can ensure that employees and local residents have a reliable means of swift removal from areas at risk.

3. All potentially hazardous facilities need a communications system linked to appropriate authorities. At Chernobyl, great confusion was caused by lack of communication among plant authorities, the local Communist Party organization, and the affected community. Releases of dangerous substances into the atmosphere must be reported promptly, through the use of radio and television networks. The premise here is that delay does not reduce fear and may generate opposition. Ignorance and fear of the unknown are more harmful than secrecy.

4. Neighbouring states should be warned promptly in the event of an industrial accident whose consequences could transcend national boundaries.

5. If an accident has contaminated the zone around the industrial enterprise, then no further work should be conducted in the area. There should be a general shut-down of the affected enterprise; local farms, schools, and daycare centres; and general services. Forests and lakes should also be declared off limits. In order to ensure that such measures are put into practice, it may be necessary to use the armed forces as well as regular police.

6. Simple safety procedures should be emphasized before an evacuation and explained to communities that cannot be evacuated immediately. These include staying indoors as far as possible, not consuming food or water from the affected region, and the washing of steps and entrances to buildings. In the Chernobyl case, the situation was confusing. Such warnings were issued but at the same time there were reassuring statements that the water supply and other critical resources had not been affected.

7. A register of names of affected people should be established as quickly as possible. Presumably, such a document could be compiled for communities living in the vicinity of dangerous enterprises prior to startup. All persons who enter a hazardous zone should also be registered. Addresses of new homes for evacuees must also be registered in order to monitor long-term effects of the accident upon human health. On no account should such information be classified, unless the enterprise in question is one that involves national security considerations.

8. Finally, there should be provision for development of an international aid system. This is, perhaps, the most controversial suggestion, especially for advanced industrial countries, which may decide such a system is superfluous. Yet the impact of a major nuclear disaster was well beyond the resources of the USSR, a country that withstood the loss of millions of people and 50 per cent of its industrial capacity during World War II. Moreover, Western nuclear stations are often located closer to major cities than are those of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.46 This system of aid could be jointly administered by United Nations organizations, such as the IAEA, but it should also include groups that are not connected with the affected industries. These might be environmental groups, concerned scientists, and individual experts in specific industries.

This last point requires further emphasis. One of the paradoxes revealed by Chernobyl is the supervisory or advisory role of the IAEA, an organization whose member states are committed to advancing the cause of nuclear energy. On the national level, in the former Soviet Union, the nuclear industry was developed almost exclusively by ministries that sought its rapid expansion. Today, the Russian nuclear authorities have revised their planning methods for such enterprises: they must now be approved by both nuclear agencies and environmental agencies.47 The last proposal noted above seeks to extend this reform to accident control: it is essential that the authorities placed in control of an accident are not supporters of the affected industrial enterprise or its products. At Chernobyl, organizations such as Greenpeace International and the International Red Cross were only belatedly involved in the response. As Mikhail Gorbachev noted in his 14 May 1986 address to the Soviet people, it is necessary to involve international organizations in the resolution of transnational problems. But those organizations should be broader in scope and more impartial than the ones that were called to Chernobyl.

In the contemporary world, unforeseen accidents will continue to happen. Their consequences may be unprecedented and may involve the rapid spread of hazardous materials. Humankind has made the decision that it is preferable to run certain risks in order to possess the material advantages of the modern world. When so much is at stake in major industrial accidents, secrecy and lack of accurate information are also commonplace.

Chernobyl remains an object lesson in human inability to deal with the consequences of its inventions. The accident's results were made worse by the reaction of the Soviet government and by the economic and political changes that have occurred in the area since 1986. On the other hand, even in the worst-affected areas, Chernobyl has not had a long-term effect on official energy policy. One of the most surprising events of 1993 was the decision of the government of Russia to begin a new, ambitious, nuclear power programme! At the time of writing there are strong indications that the governments of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Armenia will soon follow suit (Marples 1993b). Chernobyl remains a major and pressing problem in all three Slavic states as the number of related medical illnesses has risen dramatically. Seven years after the event, there are no obvious new measures for improving response. The best that can be done is to offer suggestions that may render a future major accident less cataclysmic.


I wish to thank David Freeland Duke, doctoral candidate in Soviet history at the University of Alberta, for his assistance with this chapter.



  • 25-26 April. Safety test takes place at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine.

    26 April (1.38 a.m.). An explosion destroys the fourth reactor.

    27 April (2.00 p.m.). Evacuation of Pripyat begins.

    28 April. Tass announces the accident to the world.

    29 April. First news item is published in the Soviet press.

    1 May. May Day celebrations take place as planned in Kiev, Minsk, and other cities.

    2 May. Politburo members Ryzhkov and Ligachev visit Chernobyl. A 30 kilometre zone around the reactor is designated for evacuation.

    10 May. The fourth reactor is "capped" with sand and boron, and leakages of radiation end.

    May-June. Military reservists brought to Chernobyl to lead the clean-up operation.

    August. The Soviet Report on the causes of the accident is presented to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

    December. A concrete roof ("sarcophagus") is completed over the fourth reactor.

  • 1987

  • July. Chernobyl director and five plant operators are found guilty of gross negligence at a trial held mostly in camera in the town of Chernobyl.
  • 1989

  • February. The first maps highlighting radiation fallout from Chernobyl are published in the Soviet press.
  • 1991

  • April. On the fifth anniversary of Chernobyl there are mass demonstrations in Kiev and Minsk. The world press focuses on the event, highlighting new evacuations, alleged sicknesses in contaminated zones, and the continuing operation of Soviet RBMK reactors, including those at Chernobyl.
  • 1992

  • March. The Ukrainian government reports that cracks have appeared in the sarcophagus. An international competition is to be held for a design for a replacement roof.

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