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Greater Public Good and Rationality,by Denia Djokic, University of California, Berkeley

In a society comprising many stakeholders, there is no consensus on the definition of the “greater public good.” For the case of each stakeholder, this utilitarian construct is based on a certain combination of: information, misinformation, different ways of interpreting the same information, lack of information, and most of all, different value systems, some of which do not always fit into the neat frame of a traditional cost-benefit analysis.

In student discussions at this summer school, we tried to delve deeper into the meaning and function of the cost-benefi analysis. We asked questions such as whether seemingly “irrational decisions” were merely a different framing of the same cost-benefi analysis, where different stakeholders (e.g., nuclear engineers in contrast to the public) simply weigh the risks and the benefi differently. There is no simple answer, and furthermore I have no doubt that the solution depends on much more than just “communication” between the stakeholders. A good fi step, however, is to encourage this kind of thought among the population that has traditionally been a major infl in top-down decisions: the nuclear engineering community.

All these insightful and fruitful discussions at the summer school made me wonder: why is it that we nuclear engineering students are not usually challenged to think this way? We seem to be well trained in our field, and yet there seems to be a very large gap in our education.

Undoubtedly, nuclear engineering students from UC Berkeley and the University of Tokyo are well educated in the breadth and depth of the discipline. However, in my nuclear engineering graduate school training to date, I have found that we are groomed to be inside-the-box thinkers without the necessary training to understand nuclear issues holistically. To solve technical problems, we are taught to draw clear boundaries around a limited problem, because without a clear definition, you cannot find a solution. Despite the fact that this method of solving problems often breaks down when scaling up to societal levels, the rhetoric among nuclear engineers as a community seems to remain along the lines of either “do what we say, we are the experts,” or “if only we could make our data and methods clear enough, the public would understand and accept nuclear power.” Any discussion as to whether our assumptions about society could be wrong seems rarely encouraged in a traditional educational setting for nuclear engineers. As a result, students easily adopt this overbearing rhetoric from our role models, and then from each other, feeding the “hubris of the engineer” (as mentioned in Prof. Kastenberg's lecture). It has only been in this summer school that I have been formally (i.e., in an academic framework) asked to think about how to break this cycle.

Many senior fi in the nuclear industry or academia seem to try to groom students to become advocates of nuclear power, rather than educating us to be holistic thinkers on top of being experts in our fi Unfortunately, too often in the greater nuclear engineering community, the issues surrounding the implementation of nuclear energy, from siting power plants to waste disposal sites, are brushed off as “a social issue.” Statements like that usually have the fl vor of an afterthought. Such a paradigm has bred a nuclear engineering community, in Japan and elsewhere, which was unprepared to meaningfully interact with the public and understand its views and fears.

Our traditional engineering training tells us there is one “right” way to view a problem, and that we engineers are the only ones who understand the “true” way to come up with a solution. I think we need to continue to challenge the traditions as we have done in this summer school, students, organizers, and lecturers alike. Specifically in the nuclear engineering field, academic research and thought is still intimately tied to the rigid nuclear industry (to varying degrees in different countries). After a major shakeup of our discipline's foundations at Fukushima, both literally and figuratively, the necessity of introspective, “blue-sky” discussions has never been more obvious to me. Something is flawed in our discipline, and we need to start by opening new avenues within our community's academic and educational philosophy. This summer school has been an invaluable step in the right direction.

 
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