The Chernobyl NPP: an explosive psychological climate
The Chernobyl NPP: an explosive psychological climate

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was considered one of the best in the USSR before the accident, and Pripyat was rightly called one of the most comfortable cities for atomic scientists to live. It should also be noted that, at first glance, the psychological climate did not give cause for concern.

It was a brigade-mode station staffed by seasonally qualified experts. How to explain why everything happened at Chernobyl?

Nuclear energy is an industry that involves more than the usual risk to humans and the environment. Risk factors are represented by both the engineering features of nuclear plants and possible human errors during the operation of technically challenging nuclear plants.

Moreover, a situation is not ruled out when the operator simply has no choice, that is, there may be no objective conditions for making the right decision. But more often all the same, mistakes are based on a low professional level, unsustainable knowledge, lack of necessary skills and psychological attitude, which is the main thing for making an important professional decision.

As experience gained in operating nuclear equipment, the number of errors associated with a lack of competence decreased significantly with each nuclear engineer, plant operator or ordinary specialist. But the nuclear industry had no practice of selecting operators based on psychological and physiological characteristics at the time of the Chernobyl accident.

There was enough staff for traditional production relations who was solely responsible for that part of the work that was part of his direct responsibility, nothing more. This reduced the activity of his position, limited the scope for resolving issues – the operator was obliged to do only what he was ordered by the management.

It is obvious that this form of training of working personnel — to be a “cog in the system” — generated indifference and apathy. This practice is not arbitrary, but quite objective – it led to the disaster.

The tradition of keeping secret information about incidents at other nuclear power plants contributed to this problem. On the one hand, this practice provided moral support for the perpetrators, but on the other, it showed indifference and impunity, removing a person from responsibility not only for his own separate area of work, but also for the operation of the station as a whole. 

The above indirectly confirms the indifference to the danger that was observed in Pripyat on the first day after the Chernobyl accident. Attempts to explain that the scale of the accident is extremely serious, and possibly catastrophic, that urgent measures need to be taken urgently for the safety of the population, were perceived as follows: “Let the person entrusted with the party deal with this”.

Today, science has proved that the human body is able to adapt to the conditions of life or work associated with the presence of risk to one degree or another, and eventually stop noticing it. It is easy to imagine how such an adaptation can end in principle. The phenomenon is that the specialization of the operator of a nuclear power plant is an indicator of just such an adaptation.

The profession associated with everyday risk erases the danger over time. Scientists subsequently proved that the work of the operator of a nuclear power plant can be successful only if the equipment that he has to keep under constant control corresponds to the professional competence and personal qualities of a specialist.

In other words, the methods of control of the equipment, should not exceed the capabilities of a particular person in their requirements due to the relevant instructions, no matter how strange it may sound. Today, the most advanced campaigns, not only in the field of nuclear energy, but also in any other area of human activity, adhere to this practice of appointing personnel. And then it was the norm when the actions of the operators were based on intuition and differed only in a special professional instinct.

It is no secret that the work of the operator of a nuclear power plant is associated with nervous tension, so much, if not more, depended on the degree of favorable psychological climate in the team. And it has already happened that the conditions at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were not the most unfavorable model at the time of the accident.

More than 2000 thousand psychological characteristics of personnel employed at the country’s nuclear plants were recorded in the data bank of the Ministry of Atomic Energy of the USSR at that time. The first thing that attracted attention was that the psychological uniformity of most of the personal skills of nuclear power plant operators differed significantly from the rest of the workers, surpassing them in such parameters as high emotional stability, strong self-control, mitigating the tendency to the expected risk, high intellectual level, physiological health.

It is these qualities, according to the results obtained after a thorough analysis of professional data, that the majority of Chernobyl fifth-shift employees who participated in the experiment on the night the accident had occurred. Internal operating personnel remained in place, making every effort to localize the accident, until the onset of symptoms of their own radiation damage. The findings are mixed.

The personal qualities of these people meet all the requirements and could not serve as a direct cause of the disaster. Then how did it happen that workers who demonstrated positive human and professional qualities behaved as indicated in official documents – carelessly, inattentively, irresponsibly?

Reality and Behavioral Psychology

The operational situation at the station in anticipation of the accident was normal. The personnel of the fourth power unit was preparing for the planned experimental tests. Such work had been carried out before, nothing unusual, a standard situation. What are the motives of highly qualified experts who initially formulated the conclusion that the accident occurred solely due to the fact that the staff moved away from fulfilling the requirements of the relevant instructions.

The experiment was supposed to begin on April 25, but the energy control service demanded a postponement, and it was postponed to early morning on the 26th. Moreover, if the experiment had not been carried out on time, then, according to the instructions, it could be carried out only after a year. This circumstance accelerated the testing.

A dangerous situation arose at the very start of the experiment, when the power of the reactor operating in adverse conditions sharply decreased. This served as the first signal of aggravation of the psychological situation at the control panel of the fourth power unit. Given the emergency situation, those responsible for the tests were required to suspend the experiment for a period of several hours to several days.

However, it was decided to continue testing and bring the power of the reactor to the necessary repentance. Following this decision, the operators were obliged to gradually take more and more risky actions, up to shutting down the reactor’s protective system. The logic of the one who led the experiment was simple – if the protective functions work, then the experiment will fail.

And then something happened that was impossible to understand. The psychological properties of people interested in conducting the experiment were dictated by their confidence in its usefulness and effectiveness. Therefore, they sought to create or bring all the conditions for its implementation. Having confidence in the “guarantee reliability” of the reactor, the personnel lost a sense of alarm and danger, considering any risks justified.

The relationship situation changed after the explosion. The operating staff did not realize what happened, but there was no panic or confusion. On the contrary, their utmost concentration and professional training were fully revealed in an extreme situation.

The personnel of the fifth shift showed a high sense of responsibility for the most part, taking on their shoulders the heavy burden of organizing work to control the situation inside the damaged power unit, showing professionalism in solving difficult tasks.


The tragic events of April 26, 1986, radically changed a person’s attitude to new technologies in the nuclear energy system as a whole, and to the working conditions of nuclear power plant personnel in particular. A psychological analysis of the events showed that the human factor plays a decisive role in certain conditions at a nuclear power plant.

It became obvious that the human resource at strategic sites is the highest value. High requirements for the moral and psychological qualities of nuclear power plant personnel are reflected in a special standard that, after the accident, began to regulate the psychological selection of professionals, including certain responsibilities for the leadership and management of such an important strategic object.