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Home arrow Environment arrow Reflections on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident

A Particular Challenge to Engineering as a Profession

In medicine or law, clients and the professional interact on a personal level. This is largely not the case in engineering because most engineers work for large corporations or national research institutes. Those in academics greatly impact the student body, as educators, mentors, and advisors; however, professional discussions, in and of themselves, in the academic setting are lacking. The engineer's 'client' really is the public-at-large. Nuclear engineers execute computer models that test new reactor designs, build reactor pressure vessels, fabricate nuclear fuel, and work with hazardous chemicals to treat fuels and waste. Nuclear reactor operators are essentially in control of distributing electricity to the nation. There is a lack of experience with direct interaction between the nuclear engineer and the public in all of these. This can contribute to degradation of the professional sense of responsibility. This will impact both present and future society.

This leads to an interesting consideration with respect to the time-scale of nuclear engineering within the concept of the profession. Much of the nuclear engineering profession involves solutions to problems that may not be realized for decades. Current light-water commercial reactors in the world have licenses to operate, initially for forty years, but have been or are in the process of extending lifetimes to 60 years and even greater. The performance assessment for the nuclear waste repository is based on rigorous mathematical modeling that includes nuclear engineering, but also chemistry, materials science, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering. Validation of the performance assessment results cannot be realized for thousands of years at the earliest. Therefore, the 'client' for the nuclear engineer also spans several generations.

Most of the third generation nuclear engineers who are beginning careers now or soon may not have had any opportunity to directly interact with the 'client', and engagement in issues related to the profession may be scant.[1] Unfortunately, nuclear engineers become severely aware of their clients when an accident like Fukushima occurs and tens of thousands of people are evacuated from their homes. This lack of direct interaction is detrimental to the nuclear engineer in terms of really understanding the social responsibility of the profession. If there is a lack of professional responsibility, then can the nuclear engineer truly be serving the public good?

Regarding Public Communication as a Form of Professionalism

Because nuclear engineering is fundamentally based on the integration of the technical with the institutional, and based on interpretation of discussions at the Summer School by the both the third generation and expert lecturers, in terms of professional responsibilities, routine communication with the public by nuclear engineers must be improved. This problem is derived directly from this absence of 'face to face' interaction of the nuclear engineer with the 'client'. In terms of general communication issues, some nuclear engineering topics may be reported in the news, but these are usually when accidents, or potential accidents, occur. This is not a condemnation of the media and reporting practices. Most of the daily news is largely negative in terms of subject matter. Nuclear engineering is one of the subjects that suffers probably more than others, due to historical inertia, in that it is perceived mostly negatively normally. When accidents occur, this usually reinforces the negative public opinion. Conveying accurate information regarding nuclear engineering issues is also very difficult even for those trained in the profession, and further underscores the need for the nuclear engineer to realize that part of the professional responsibility involves public communication.

As an example, based on first-hand observation, in the weeks following the Fukushima Daiichi accident, news crews from ABC, NBC, and CBS frequently interviewed the faculty Department of Nuclear Engineering at UC-Berkeley for technical communication about the accident and related events [6]. However, even this level of communication flows only in one direction, as the nuclear engineer basically just tells the interviewer the state of the subject at hand. This is needed and it is important to do, but a deeper level of public interaction is required, where both the nuclear engineering professional and the public can see one another as both part of the society. Therefore, without regular and direct interaction, or failing to realize that the profession must include some level of this, is an encroachment on professional responsibilities. This is not to place the 'burden of proof' on the public to motivate themselves to hold a more positive attitude regarding nuclear engineering; indeed, this burden is part of the professional responsibility of the third generation nuclear engineer to develop ways that public interaction can be increased.

Meaningful public interaction has been a challenge since the inception of nuclear engineering and drawbacks to this are related to its historical inertia. This has led many times to an 'us versus them' mentality which only fosters antagonism. This has historically shown to be the wrong approach. This can occur when so-called 'technocrats,' while well intentioned, try to make decisions based solely on science and engineering by relying on a responsibility for 'good of the public,' without experiencing or communicating directly with the public, whom these decisions affect. Generally, most repository siting issues are examples of this. In the case of low-level waste repository siting in South Korea, technocrats with a strong voice in the federal government attempted to unilaterally establish a waste site and were met with strong public opposition at sites around the country for nearly two decades.[2] Separation of the nuclear engineer from the public leads to an adoption of a paternalistic attitude. Rather, the nuclear engineer must understand that they are in fact part of the public that they purport serve. Because of this, technical communication should be developed in a more inclusive manner. This task is still rather difficult, but a more evolved approach to public communication should be considered within the responsibility of the nuclear engineering professional.

  • [1] Of course, there are those nuclear engineers who are involved in medicine, who will in fact interact with clients individually and directly. However, those nuclear engineers working at a power plant or corporation will affect far more of the public. Lacking a professional sense in this capacity, therefore, is problematic.
  • [2] Although, it should be noted that there is still a political factor to these issues.
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