Beginning to Understand Professional Ethics as a Responsibility

Building on the premise that engineers must recognize themselves as part of the society, it becomes clear that engineering solutions have some functional relationship with the society. This can be attained by realizing that the professional engineer is an ethical engineer. The third generation must develop this self-awareness. How then can the connection between professional responsibilities and professional ethics be recognized?

Developing professional ethics is a continual process. This can be defined as the design of conduct in engineering practice.[1] Professional ethics can only really be developed by the nuclear engineer with time. This topic is very broad ranging and there are many different ethical approaches that can be considered based on realistic, personal experiences of each nuclear engineer. However, self-awareness of an ethical responsibility at the start of professional development could prove instructive.

To start, for the third generation, a critical aspect of developing an ethical point of view, as a professional nuclear engineer, is culture. This is becoming very important as the world becomes smaller, and therefore more interrelated and complex. Consideration of ethics in engineering is essential for all engineers themselves in order to work in and be a part of the global community. This goes beyond simply reading the codes of ethics provided by the professional society. The third generation of nuclear engineer needs to consider a new definition of what it means to be professional which will include ethics. Codes of ethics can serve as an interface between the profession and expectations for the public, but these are constrained. They are based on universal principles of morality, which is needed, but lack context. This is where cultural understanding is critical. This requires not only honest communication, but also a combination of honesty and sincerity. This will be essential in establishing a new professional outlook.

From a micro-ethics perspective, the third generation can consider their individual research or professional goals in terms of responsibility to society. This perspective was alluded to in the Summer School discussions in that in the immediate events after the accident the student body had concerns about their appropriate individual response to the public concerning the accidents. The macro-level perspective can also be addressed at this stage of professional development for the third generation as well, as the Summer School was clearly designed as a forum to discuss the role of nuclear engineering and engineers within the society. This macro-level also may be the most important viewpoint that requires serious thought and change by all engineers in the post-Fukushima society, but especially by the third generation, in that relationships with the public are still nascent and are not encumbered by prior experience, whether positive or negative. Part of the goal of this chapter is to address the need for an understanding that nuclear engineering itself is a profession with related and defined responsibilities; this is a meso-level ethical understanding. The meta-level of ethical understanding may not yet be achievable as the third generation, as this seems to require some hindsight that is developed with professional experience, though, at the least, being receptive to questioning the nature of engineering could be a constructive development moving forward from Fukushima.

Additionally, in terms of ethical considerations and societal context as part of the professional responsibilities, there were many conversations at the Summer School that focused on premises such as, 'We need to convince the public of the benefits of nuclear power' or 'we have to show what the risks really are.' However, it was strongly implied and at times outright stated that if the public does not agree with such benefits, then they are 'wrong' and 'acting irrationally.' This direction of thought is a misguided form of communication and does not serve the public. This is professionally unethical in that there is a failure to comprehend the societal context in which the 'benefits' are proposed.

Engineering is fundamentally based on a logical reasoning. The dominant paradigm in engineering of any discipline is utilitarianism; i.e., the probabilistic risk assessment or cost/benefit analysis. While these do contain some degree of subjective judgment, overall, they are overwhelmingly mathematically and logically based. However, to expect the engineer to conduct himself or herself professionally strictly by logic would be misguided. This is again a problem with the separative and erroneous concept of 'engineers' and 'the public,' in that this leads to a tendency, also observed at the Summer School, with engineers that thinking strictly in logical terms will lead to the only 'correct answer.' The 'correctness' of any answer is determined by the functional relationship with engineering as part of the public sphere.

For example, the risks and benefits of nuclear power in Germany, Switzerland, or the USA really did not change after the Fukushima accidents; however, the societal context for this certainly did change, and the question as to whether nuclear power should be discontinued is not strictly dependent on engineering solutions in any nation. In Germany and Switzerland nuclear power will be phased out, but in the USA current policies will be maintained. This is not to imply that engineering solutions are without merit. Probabilistic risk assessments must be conducted in order to determine whether if such measures as backfitting, etc., will reduce risks at any power plants. This is being done in response to the accidents in many nations, including the USA. Ultimately, if these risks can be reduced significantly, this does not mean that if a nation elects not to continue nuclear power development that this is the 'wrong' decision. The consequences of the accident, emotionally or monetarily, may be too great for the society to bear.[2]

To consider that all of these issues can be 'correctly' determined by purely logical means, is professionally unethical. Frankly, it is nonsensical that anyone should be expected to act strictly in a logical manner, devoid of emotion [7].[3] This overemphasis on logic contributes to the lack of understanding about the relationship between nuclear engineering and society; real, practical solutions just cannot be attained in this way. The nuclear engineer must recognize his or her own relationship within the society in order to perceive the larger, functional relationship of engineering with the society. This can potentially be achieved by considering their own value systems and working to apply these to the precepts of the profession, i.e., for the public good, as well as the values of the society within which they are also members themselves.

Final Remarks Regarding Nuclear Engineering as a Profession

Contemporary challenges to nuclear engineering, as a profession, will be affected by historical inertia. Much of the public currently would think of a bomb first, when prompted to remark about nuclear engineering topics. This is not an unreasonable public reaction; the proliferation of nuclear technology in this way is still problematic. More and more nations seek access to nuclear technology for energyproducing purposes and this presents a growing security and proliferation risk regarding the use of nuclear technology for nefarious purposes.

Nuclear engineering, as a profession, is also challenging because although the profession is technically based, the professional cannot reside strictly in this technical arena. In understanding nuclear engineering as a profession, the third generation must grasp that technical approaches are necessary, but not sufficient, and that both social science literacy and professional ethics development are required to achieve solutions to contemporary nuclear engineering problems with any modicum of practicality. A social and political awareness will always frame nuclear engineering issues and this must be internalized as part of an inherent sense of professional responsibility. This may not be fully achievable currently, but if the third generation can begin to think about the profession with a more expansive scope, then their role can grow stronger, professionally. Research and technological development alone does not solely support and extend the goals of the profession in relation to society, without collaboration with the society.

  • [1] This is a formal definition provided by experts in the field at the Summer School.
  • [2] This of course raises the issue of alternative energy sources, which can be also debated at length, but the main point is that none of these decisions can be made without considering the society.
  • [3] Even the epitome of the rational individual, the singular Mr. Spock, expressed outright joy when he realized that he did not kill Captain Kirk during the kal-if-fee (Amok Time, TOS#30). The myth of the engineer, that individual, acting in a strict logical manner, devoid of emotion, and arriving at a single 'correct answer,' is itself, highly illogical. Extensive scholarly endeavors are currently devoted to the subject of emotions in engineering and the manner in which professional ethics can be developed in this way. While not specifically discussed at the Summer School, further contemplation of this may be a good start for the developing identity for the third generation nuclear engineer.
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