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Disasters don't have maps

Updated Wednesday 4th May 2005

Joyce's response to the final lecture of the 2005 series of Reith lectures

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As someone who has spent over twenty years developing methods for the investigation of failures and teaching others how to learn from them I was pleased to see Lord Broers drawing on the sinking of the Titanic at the start of his lecture.

As I read on, however, I did begin to think that Chernobyl might have been a more apposite starting point.

Abandoned hotel in Pripyat, part of the area affected by the Chernboyl explosion [Image: snostein under CC-BY-NC-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon snostein via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Abandoned hotel in Pripyat, part of the area affected by the Chernboyl explosion [Image: snostein under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

In the early hours of Saturday 26 April 1986, two explosions destroyed the core of the Unit 4 reactor and the roof of the reactor building at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.

A plume of smoke, radioactive fission products and debris rose about one km into the air. Some of it fell back to the ground but the remainder began its journey around the northern hemisphere and was joined, not long after, by emissions from a graphite fire that raged for the next ten days.

Thirty-one firemen died as a result of the radiation doses they received and the wider death toll from the accident still continues to rise slowly but, according to the most authoritative source (the World Health Organisation), is relatively modest.

If the sinking of the Titanic was a failure of technology it was a closely bounded one. Global warming and nuclear emissions know no such boundaries.

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