A number of coincidences struck me as I became engrossed in a superbly written account of the nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl. The book “Midnight at Chernobyl” was written by Adam Higginbotham and released in February of this year. If there is the slightest bit of science nerd in you, if you are fascinated by the leadership lessons learnt from crisis or if the workings behind the Iron Curtain interests you at all then this book is compulsory reading.
So what struck me reading the book? The events of the 26th of April 1986, that led to the meltdown of the reactor occurred on the day that I would join the NSW Police. Over twenty two years later I would finish my career having spent the last year working on a Counter Terrorism Project that involved me writing a classified paper for the member countries of Interpol on Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear terrorism threats and trends.
I read the book first picking it up in a book store in Alaska of all places and decided it should be the next read. What fascinated me most I think was the implications of the actions of the Soviets who sought to deny the scale and implications from day one through till….well, now it would seem.
The book details the compounding problems that led to the catastrophe, which started with a cover up of known design faults in the Soviet made reactor, the total disregard of evidence that they should not to proceed with a safety test and then the denial of the destruction of the core, all of which if addressed as they arose would have saved the lives of thousands and mitigated the extraordinary impact on hundreds of thousands of others.
As a radioactive cloud, blown by the wind, traveled across countries they continued to deny the true extent and believing that simply re-writing the facts was the answer. This denial was not limited to those outside the USSR but equally to those living within the exclusion zone. The book reveals that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, attributes Chernobyl as the leading cause of the collapse of the USSR. All of which could have been prevented if people had shared the information that existed, which was well known and within their power and indeed responsibility to share.
History shows the failure to deal with the issues at the time, difficult as they were, would eventually bring all of those who withheld the information down.
At every step of the way the disaster was compounded because information was withheld.
This was all as recent as only thirty three years ago. And for the next hundreds of years land will remain uninhabitable within the exclusion zone that covers thousands of square kilometres.
Once I started reading the book I was drawn in and couldn’t put it down. Time and time again I reflected on the actions of so few that impacted so many. I kept thinking “what are the lessons out of this?” And there were plenty. But the compelling learning I took from the book was the implications when you decide what information people can and can’t handle. Running a workshop recently the group was working through a simulation exercise from challenges we faced in Bali after the bombings dealing with the grieving families. There was division in the group as to how much information they would provide, but we agreed during the discussion that who are we to decide what others are capable of dealing with and thereby justifying our withholding of relevant and such important facts.
One of the biggest lessons I took from working in Bali was that if you give people information you get understanding. Doesn’t mean you take away the pain, doesn’t mean you end their grief or that they won’t be even more pissed off, but it does mean that they can make informed decisions. When we decide not to have tough conversations and when we frame it up that we’re saving the recipient further grief, perhaps it means we’re avoiding the tough conversation for us, not them and thereby denying them the opportunities to make the best decisions for themselves.