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1986 was not a good year

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. I have to wonder: to what extent did the usability, or lack thereof, of the control room instruments contribute to the disaster? I mean, just imagine trying to make sense of a reactor’s status from this panel indicating fuel rod positions. (The complete gallery has more interesting pictures)

Wikipedia’s article on the disaster has this telling quote:

The unstable state of the reactor was not reflected in any way on the control panel, and it does not appear that anyone in the reactor crew was fully aware of danger.

Still — even if the “unstable state” was reflected somewhere on that massive control console, would anyone have been able to find it in the haystack of instruments?

The Three Mile Island accident is another example of how control console complexity can contribute to exacerbating emergency situations. Again, in that accident, there was no reliable instrument to indicate the statuses of various critical components that had failed. Another telling quote:

There is general consensus that the accident was exacerbated by incorrect decisions made because the operators were overwhelmed with information, much of it irrelevant, misleading, or incorrect.

I’m not convinced that control room “habitability” has improved much since these accidents occurred. Just have a look at this section of the newly-refurbished Pickering A Unit 1’s control room and you’ll see that the instrument panels are just as complex as ever. I worry — if another serious incident were to occur in a nuclear reactor today, would the operators be able to correctly interpret their instrument panels in time in order to prevent an accident?

I leave you with this sobering view of reactor #4’s control room as it sits today, courtesy of Robert Polidori.

Control Room of Unit 4 reactor after the meltdown.

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  1. My former 'mentor' at U of T, Kim Vicente, actually specializes in the usability of expert systems and to my knowledge has spent a fair amount of time working on nuclear control rooms. I have his book (I think it's called The Human Factor) which might have more information on it (haven't read it yet myself).


  2. I dont know when this reactor was built. However, I would hope that new ones today (and at least in the past twenty years) have been digitized.

    This article reminded me of when aircraft had "flight engineers" (Along with the pilots and co-pilot). Their only purpose was to monitor the aircrafts status while the pilots flew the airplanes. (Take a look at this example of an old Boeing 747).

    The flight engineer position has all been long gone thanks to computers now. The captain or first officer is only notified if a particular system is operating outside of their parameters. No need to actively scan instruments to make sure that everything is "in the green".

    I guess some design factors are limited by technology (or money).