Public relations

Accidental humour

19 July 2006

Safety in the nuclear industry is no laughing matter. But former Ukrainian plant operator Alexey Kovynev doesn’t see why that means there is no place for side splitting in the business of atom splitting.

The nuclear power industry is a somewhat humourless world. Jokes about safety in nuclear installations are especially taboo, perhaps because plant workers are worried that they might be seen as not taking safety seriously. While some members of a plant’s workforce may well display a certain degree of black humour concerning nuclear power, it rarely leaves the plant’s perimeter fence.

One of the few exceptions is Alexey Kovynev, director of Ukrainian nuclear engineering company Enertek and former shift supervisor and operator at Zaporozhe. Kovynev is author of three humourous books on nuclear power and has created an exhibition of 200 cartoons. Kovynev’s exhibition, titled The Nuclear Power Plant in Cartoons, has been displayed at the Rovno and Chernobyl plants and last month was exhibited at Wilmington Conferences’ meeting on plant life management and plant licence extension (PLIM + PLEX) in Paris and at the Nuclear Society of Slovakia’s general assembly. The Nuclear Society of Slovakia also plans to display the exhibition at Bohunice and Mochovce.

During the 13 years he worked as operator at Zaporozhe, Kovynev founded the plant’s electronic newsletter, called The Unit, which ran for 62 issues over five years. The satiric anecdotes that appeared in The Unit eventually became the material for his book The Whole Unit. A second collection of anecdotes was published in The Endless Shift. Eventually the material was transformed into The Nuclear Power Plant in Cartoons.

To appreciate the humour, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the nuclear industry and in particular an appreciation of the predicament of the control room worker. Many of the cartoons reflect the frustration and boredom – interspersed with occasional tension – of the control room shift worker. While much of the humour might not translate so well to every nation, most nuclear workers worldwide will be able to relate to the sentiment behind the cartoons. For example, a cartoon depicting a worker trapped behind bars inside the plant will strike a chord with many plant workers, though the average member of the public might not really get the joke.

When the subject matter becomes more critical – literally speaking – many would steer clear of amusing depictions or commentaries, such as Kovynev’s cartoon depicting control room workers leisurely playing a round of cards in order to decide on which worker initiates the emergency procedures. To those opposed to nuclear, such a cartoon may reinforce the impression that the industry has a lax view of safety; but to the control room worker, the cartoon caricatures (rather than denigrates) the high levels of safety that are practised. It therefore takes a brave person – especially a former nuclear plant operator from Ukraine – to highlight the funny side of an industry where safety can never be seen to be a laughing matter.

Author Info:

More information on ‘The Nuclear Power Plant in Cartoons’ can be obtained directly from Alexey Kovynev, Enertek LLC, Energodar, Zaporozhie, Ukraine 71500

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