Magazine article Science News

The 'White Overalls' of Overconfidence

Magazine article Science News

The 'White Overalls' of Overconfidence

Article excerpt

The "white overalls' of overconfidence

After so many years of accident-free, "nominal' technological performances, the timing of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, amidst three U.S. space program failures, reminds us of something we tend to forget: Even the highest technology is operated by human beings. And it appears there was a similar, tragic behavior pattern of overconfidence, even arrogance, on the part of those who operate and oversee these systems in both countries.

It is clear now that some officials within NASA were aware of potential problems that could occur if the Challenger were launched in cold weather. Nevertheless, the launch took place and the "unthinkable' happened. The loss of Challenger, coupled with the failure last month of a Titan 34D and last week's explosion of an unmanned Delta rocket, is a blow from which NASA may not fully recover for decades. It will also take a long time to completely unravel the reasons why Challenger was launched that day, but among them almost certainly are the false sense of security and the disdain for public scrutiny that can come with success.

This attitude is also chillingly evident in a feature article on the Chernobyl plant in the February 1986 SOVIET LIFE magazine, a USSR-sponsored publication. In it, the Soviets took a care-free, whistling-past-the-graveyard look at the plant and the town of Pripyat, which was born with the startup of Chernobyl in 1977. In what may have been history's worst-timed piece of public relations, the Soviet publication quoted Pyotr Bondarenko, a shift superintendent specializing in safety review, as saying "that working at the [Chernobyl] station is safer than driving a car.'

Twenty-nine-year-old Boris Chernov, a Chernobyl steam turbine operator, told SOVIET LIFE, "I wasn't afraid to take a job at a nuclear power plant. There is more emotion in fear of nuclear power plants than real danger. …

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