Is Communication Essential for Advancing Nuclear Engineering?

There is no doubt that nuclear engineers recognize the importance of social aspects including mutual communication with society, as can be seen in the education reform programs, the round table discussions, and the establishment of the SES subcommittee in AESJ. However, in reality, it is not completely clear or convincing for engineers whether mutual communication will really contribute to the safe utilization of nuclear technology and the advancement of nuclear engineering. This is one of the key reasons why nuclear engineers have not been positively involved in mutual communication. Many engineers think that the communication does nothing for the performance and advancement of nuclear technology but is just required to let the general public know the importance of nuclear technology and make them accept nuclear technology. In this sense, the communication with society is often considered to be a reluctant obligation and an additional burden for engineers, and its purpose to change the public perception.

Citizens usually do not think that they have to change; rather they think engineering or experts (community) as well as the governance of technology need to change, especially when they participate in mutual communication. The goal of engineers is to change society, while the goal of the general public is to change nuclear engineering and the nuclear expert community. Thus, in most events of mutual communication, both sides cannot achieve what they want; engineers cannot foster public acceptance, while the general public cannot have any changes in the technology and the expert community so as to make them more acceptable to them. Repeating such fruitless communication makes engineers tend to keep a distance from the communication.

However, when we see the signifi of the communication from a different direction and appropriately defi it, mutual communication with society seems vital to safely utilize nuclear technology and to advance nuclear engineering. I hereafter discuss this point from three viewpoints: (1) legitimacy, (2) introspection, and (3) trust.

Legitimacy

Historically, the civil use of nuclear technology has not been separable from the military use of nuclear technology, politically and socially. Related to this fact, there are many features that make nuclear technology distinct from other technologies. For instance, nuclear non-proliferation has been one of the main international political issues after World War II. The transparency on nuclear technology needs to be limited. National governments participate deeply in the development and utilization of nuclear technology under the international non-proliferation regime. Nuclear security concerns, which have been largely escalating during this decade, also require a decrease in transparency.

Economically, in comparison with other methods of electricity generation, the percentage of initial investment (capital costs) is higher and designing an insurance system is more difficult due to the large uncertainty in calculating possible damages from potential accidents, which requires some support from the government. There are also issues on waste disposal whose radioactivity lasts a very long time, which requires responsible involvement from the government.

Such characteristics of nuclear technology increase government commitment to the technology in its development, utilization, and evaluation. It is hard to put nuclear technology under a full market mechanism, which can act as a kind of screening process for technology in society. If a product does not fit society, the product is swept out from the market or is modified so as to become one more acceptable to society. In many countries, products made with nuclear technology, such as nuclear power plants, are nearly fully detached from the market mechanism. Someone may claim that there are market mechanisms within the nuclear industry, like nuclear export competition, bidding in procurement of fuel, etc. However, it is competition after the decision for nuclear technology utilization has been made by the government or by a semi-governmental utility company in most cases. Nuclear power plants are there whichever company wins the contract.

In history, we can find clear traces of such extensive government participation. For example, Japan built 1–2 nuclear power reactors every year since the beginning of the introduction of nuclear power in 1960s, until the mid-1990s, when the power demand declined because of the economic recession [11]. Partly thanks to this, electricity has been stably supplied, the economy rapidly grew, and Japan has established and maintained a high standard of technology for the manufacture of nuclear power plants. The long-term steady promotion and development were approvingly and proudly related in the field of nuclear engineering education before the Fukushima Daiichi accident. However, considering that there have been anti-nuclear movements since 1970s, and that the Chernobyl accident in 1986 stopped new construction of nuclear reactors in most Western countries, it is quite unusual to have the steady increase of nuclear power plants in Japan. Such a situation would not happen for other engineering products which are put under the market mechanism.

While the fleet of commercial nuclear power reactors expanded steadily, research and development (R&D) of advanced reactors was not so successful in Japan; the development of the advanced thermal reactor (ATR) was not realized, and the development of the fast breeder reactor (FBR) did not proceed according to expectations in spite of huge R&D outlays [11]. These unsatisfactory R&D results seemed to be overlooked, probably because they were a part of national policy.

These facts mean that nuclear technology and its expert community did not go through the usual procedure to obtain social legitimacy in comparison with other technologies; a pseudo-legitimacy was given and endorsed by the government. This may be one of the reasons why nuclear technology has often suffered strong negative reactions from society. Most citizens may not necessarily explicitly think about the legitimacy issue; however, they may feel some uneasiness in the fact that the government, not the citizens, made the decision, different from other products.

It is hoped that mutual communication with the public will enable its opinions to be reflected in the development and utilization of technology, and lead to social legitimacy. It should be noted that there must be feedback and adjustment after listening to the public; otherwise mutual communication is no different from oneway communication.

 
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