Based on a combination of facts taken from his own research, as well as both facts and fiction from the HBO miniseries Chernobyl 1986, our columnist reflects on how the show depicts the abuse of power and bullying nature of the leaders involved and those investigating the incident.

Although a reproduction of real-life events, I am aware that the miniseries makes use of poetics to tell the story of what happened in Chernobyl. I am not in a position to determine clearly what is fact or fiction, so I am basing this article (a partial extract from my latest book) on the story as depicted in the show.


The Chernobyl incident is seen as the worst-ever nuclear disaster in the history of humankind, when considering the costs as well as the environmental and human effects, both physical and psychological. It is known as one of the two most serious nuclear disasters ever, the second being the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011 caused by an earthquake and tsunami.


At 1.23 am on April 26, 1986, disaster struck during a safety test, when the reactor became unstable due to design flaws and operator “negligence”, causing overheating and the eventual meltdown of the reactor’s core. This was followed by explosions that ruptured the reactor, causing significant damage.

Sadly, around 30 operators and firefighters lost their lives within three months of the incident; one person died immediately, another in hospital, and a further 28 from exposure to high levels of radiation. In addition to the 30 persons who lost their lives, many more would develop, and continue to suffer from, adverse health conditions for many years to come.

The rupture resulted in contamination of the air for more than a week, affecting various parts of the former USSR as well as parts of Europe. The affected area was initially declared, then increased firstly to a radius of 30 kilometres, before being extended to the 2 600-km2 “Exclusion Zone”.

Shockingly, the magnitude of the disaster was not immediately made public, meaning that evacuations only started a day and a half after the incident. At first, almost 50 000 people were evacuated from the area, followed by more than 60 000 when the Exclusion Zone was increased in size.


Even though this catastrophic event had occurred, and knowing that the reactor had ruptured, the then-Soviet officials decided against informing the residents of the town of Pripyat and others at risk from the imminent danger of the incident. Instead, they blocked off the roads, thereby not only preventing people from entering the area, but also preventing those inside – including the residents of Pripyat – from evacuating to safety.

Eventually, residents of Pripyat were instructed to board evacuation vehicles and were told to take only a couple of personal items. They were informed that they would be permitted to return to their homes in a couple of days. This false promise turned into weeks, then months; now it is 36 years later and still counting. They will never return to their homes or the lives they had known prior to that dreadful night in April 1986.


The cultures and sub-cultures at various levels had a significant role to play, from the hierarchies of the USSR and the enquiry team to the leaders of the company and the shift working in the control room at the time of the incident. These cultures and sub-cultures in one way or another resulted in the tragic sequence of events leading up to the incident, as well the events thereafter, including the handling of the emergency crisis situation and related investigations.

Culture: The socio-political influence on culture and fear of the “heavy hand” of the authorities resulted in the under-reporting of previous incidents related to nuclear reactors that occurred at other sites within the USSR. Had these previous incidents been reported and related issues shared and actioned on, there is a good chance that the 1986 Chernobyl incident would never have happened.

The socio-political influence on the culture also resulted in some bullying prior to designing nuclear reactors when professionals raised their views on safety issues.

The lies and cover-up: After the incident, the dishonesty, lies, and cover-up continued relentlessly, from the moment the management team addressed the Pripyat executive committee meeting convened in the early hours of the day of the incident. This included comments that they had the incident under control, that there was only mild radiation,
and that it was limited to the plant. Shockingly, the State informed the residents of Kyiv, located 93 km from
Chernobyl, that they should still hold the planned “May Day” celebrations.

Intimidation: One of the operators explained that the two dosimeters used had maxed and burnt out and that there was graphite on the roof of the plant. He was immediately insulted and accused of playing games. He was then instructed to go to the roof to have a look at the core. The operator firstly refused but was then escorted, under duress, to do so.

Sub-culture: One questions the sub-culture of the team operating the plant. There seems to have been a hierarchical sub-culture and one of clear authoritarianism, bullying, and a sense of fear culture in the control room. Had the two operators stood their ground and refused to follow the orders from the responsible deputy chief engineer, the events that unfolded on the day would have been prevented. Lives would not have been lost, people would not have had to be evacuated from their homes, and the health of many thousands of people would not have been affected in the years to follow.

The circumstances and events that took place in the control room reflect the unhealthy culture and the tension in the room. There was continuous blaming of the operators for the events that unfolded. When being informed by one operator that there was no core, the deputy chief engineer contradicted the claims.

The culture in the control room included bullying of the operators by the deputy chief engineer. He was constantly “throwing insults”, physically throwing off procedures and objects, threatening that if operators didn’t follow his orders they would be fired, using foul language, totally ignoring the comments made by others, cutting them short in conversation, and refusing to engage, insisting on a “telling” approach.

One has to raise the question: what leader with a caring attitude would ever send members of their team out into the work area knowing that they were exposing them to life-threatening conditions? This is what happened after the incident.


It was clear that the enquiry into the incident was focused on placing blame for the disaster on persons involved in the incident and the leadership employed at the site. This is despite the fact that the fourth reactor did not meet certain design safety features and requirements that were applicable at the time of the design. The focus was on finding and apportioning blame amongst the operational staff, holding them responsible for the disaster and finally incarcerating them for their “negligence”.

According to my knowledge, unlike the six persons who were sent to prison for their part in the disaster, those behind the scenes were not held accountable for the decisions taken years earlier prior to design, construction, and erection, nor for failing to listen to the concerns of others about design safety and materials. Little or no action was taken against the individuals who decided to withhold information and misinform the public and the rest of the world. Their dishonest decisions to lie and block off the city to prevent people from leaving impacted many thousands of people in the years that followed the incident.


Some of the behaviours reflected in the miniseries are without a doubt still common today in the workplace. Bullying and threats to do what one is told are still experienced, developing fear, as well as in-groups and out-groups. Telling rather than engaging is still far too common and depends on various issues such as culture, sub-cultures, and formal hierarchies.

There is no difference between the people who raised their concerns and opposed the use of the reactors for producing electricity, who were subsequently threatened, and people today who receive threats from their managers or supervisors, including “If you do not do it as I say, you will lose your job”. I would consider these superiors as “managers” and not “leaders”. When fearing the loss of one’s job and understanding the impact or ripple effect on the family, people will consider doing as instructed, even if it is the wrong and/or unsafe action.

For example, when considering incident investigations, there is still a tendency to cover up some facts, or to place effort and focus on finding the scapegoat and apportioning blame, without suspending one’s own agenda. There are those in the industry who choose to keep things close to their chests, to not be transparent, and to not give all the facts.

Depending on the blaming culture of an organisation, those on the shop floor, those who are witnesses to incidents, persons injured, and those who contributed to the events often also remain silent, choosing not to share the truth for fear of the repercussions.


When assessing the methods and language we use in industry, as well as leadership in general, one understands that so much of what we do as leaders plays a significant role in the development and sustained culture of any organisation. Things like bullying, blaming, telling, searching for fault, lying, covering up, and a non-caring approach are counterproductive to a sound overall culture.

When considering the elements of culture, or lack thereof, there are many related shortcomings associated with the Chernobyl incident, including meetings, discussions, political ideology, lack of ethics, and the treatment of people in general. Things like the history of the hierarchy structures, stresses placed on people, the language used, heroes and villains, spoken and unspoken language, attitudes, values, and beliefs all had a contributing factor to this incident.

I often hear people talk about their “safety culture”; there is no such thing. Organisations have a culture, and the safety culture is only one element (sub-culture) of that culture. Understanding what makes up culture benefits an organisation as a whole and consequently benefits risk and safety, as well as other disciplines within any organisation.

As leaders, we need to place the focus on people – on humanising our approach to leadership in general. Leaders need to understand that people are the centre of everything, and culture must therefore be built around this principle.  

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