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Post-Fukushima Questions and Answers

Engineers are celebrated for their role as superior problem-solvers who depend on math and science to make rational, accurate decisions, and ultimately to create new things [20]. Increasingly, scholars are raising questions that challenge the engineers' role, including: For whom do engineers work? How do engineers select the problems to solve? Which problems are not worth engineers' investment, and which are beyond the expertise of the engineer? Who benefits? [20, p. 26]. Since their role is traditionally in the problem-solving domain, engineers tend to stick to solvable problems, wherein a problem's solvability is directly related to the amount of quantitative information that can be gathered about it. Trained to approach problems with the tools of optimization studies, cost-benefit analysis, and risk analysis—engineers depend on manipulating numbers to obtain objective results. One of the core issues with the problems surrounding Fukushima is that the answers rely on more than numbers. This was a concern that was raised repeatedly throughout the Summer School. Much time was devoted to searching for ways that nuclear power could be justified without weighing its costs and benefits in numerical terms. In this sense, the problems are distinctly non-engineering. And yet, they involve a technology—nuclear power plants—that are beyond comprehension to the majority of those outside of the nuclear engineering community. What then, is a reasonable and desirable approach to take when weighing the analyses and recommendations of nuclear engineering experts alongside the views of the rest of the population? This question, in particular, seized the Summer School participants' attention.

Discussions about the challenges of communicating the safety of nuclear power persisted throughout the week. These discussions largely focused on public communication, safety, and trust, which were the most salient issues to the participants, perhaps because communication seems within the nuclear engineers' realm of responsibility. In contrast, it was more difficult to have “productive” discussions about issues that were more squarely located in the social sciences, including conflicts of interest, troubling institutional arrangements, and different ideas about the concepts of rationality, expertise, and risk. One of the professional norms that became evident during the Summer School was that engineers learn that it is irresponsible, and perhaps even impossible to make the “right” decision without adequate knowledge of the scientific facts. This prioritization of factual knowledge was evident in the organization of the summer school. For example, the first day of the program involved a series of content-heavy lectures that offered rigorous scientific analyses of radiation, reactors, and regulations. Starting off the program with these lectures implicitly communicated its priority to the students; it was important to know this information first. Throughout the day, the discussions considered how this kind of scientific information was and was not communicated to the public. Many engineers felt that it was their responsibility to do some of this public communicating and also to act as information gatekeepers. One student, for example, remarked that it was irresponsible to risk panic by releasing data to the public before professionals were able to act on it.[1] Students also expressed that their role was to model and measure the available data in order to bound problems, but also expressed concerns about how and what to measure.

The second day included lectures on the future of reactor design and on the ethics and “safety culture” of nuclear power plants, which fueled a discussion about engineering's reliance on utilitarian reasoning. The first presentations from social scientists began midweek, in which new ways of thinking about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident were introduced. Students were asked to reconsider the challenges of building interdisciplinary awareness across engineering and the social sciences, but also across the more specialized fields within engineering and science (e.g., between nuclear engineers and climate scientists). The social scientists provided students with examples of how to study the institutional and organizational factors that are shaping the ongoing events at Fukushima, including the arrangements between regulatory bodies, industry, government, and academia. Instead of framing the accident in terms that are familiar to engineers, such as safety culture, students were encouraged to consider how social conditions and institutions had shaped the definition of safety. A historical perspective, for example, shows us that nuclear power is judged with great severity, in part because of the public fear of radiation. For this reason, analyses that compare the risks of nuclear power with those of motor vehicles or airplane crashes are not always meaningful. Looking back on the events surrounding 3 Mile Island reminds engineers that severe accidents will happen and that it is important to communicate about them openly and critically.

After a day of social science immersion, students had an opportunity to begin in depth discussions with one another. This provided an important space for students to identify issues beyond their professors' gaze. For engineering students, this is a necessary exercise to facilitate a pedagogical shift away from lecturestyle learning, and to allow each student to develop a perspective and voice that is different than their professors'. A recent study of the undergraduate experience of engineers as compared to students in computer science, science, technology, math, arts and humanities, social sciences, business, and other majors determined that engineering students spend considerably more time preparing for class and have the highest number of credit hours, many of which are spent in lecture [21]. Engineering students quickly learn how to intake and apply the information from lectures wherein the focus is on finding the most efficient way to complete problem sets rather than critically engaging each professor's views.

In contrast, students at the Summer School were expected to participate in a discussion that involved deep reflection about apparently unanswerable questions. Students were instructed that although discussion and reflection would likely feel unfamiliar to them, and perhaps even unproductive, it was something that they owed to the society that had funded their work. After hearing from the social scientists, students were asked to break off into smaller groups in order to further discuss the issues that most concerned them. The process of group formation was not obvious, and students spent much time brainstorming the issues that interested them before they cohered into groups. But even after this coherence, the students decided to remain in close proximity so that they could move from group to group. Many of the students shared common concerns and valued the opportunity to learn from their peers.

On the fourth day of the Summer School students had an opportunity to learn about how engineering ethics was largely imported to Japan from the U.S. in the late 1990s. Comparing the United States and Japanese codes of ethics reveals that Japan does not emphasize engineering as a profession. In Japan, most engineers' identities are linked to their place of employment rather than with the general engineering profession. Students were encouraged to think about how these differences might have shaped the Japanese response to Fukushima. In response, students began to discuss who belongs to the engineering profession. Who counts as a member of the engineering community? U.S. students also admitted that they had never read the U.S. engineering code of ethics. The discussion turned to explore the role of the code—is it for students, or advanced professionals? It was pointed out that mid-career engineers had little time or incentive to discuss ethics and furthermore, that the relationship between ethics and regulation were unclear. Students were asked to think about the role of nuclear power in long-term energy planning. Again, the discussion turned to questions about how to deal with “irrational” decision-making. Engineers felt strongly that it was their responsibility to keep public discussions about energy on “rational grounds” by providing important data about the costs and benefits of investing in different energy technologies. Increasingly it became clear just how uncertain the future of nuclear energy had become in the wake of Fukushima.

Throughout the week, students had been breaking off into smaller groups to discuss the problems and questions they found most concerning and interesting. On the final day, students were asked to present the findings of these discussions. Students felt that they were in a transitional moment. They knew that they wanted and needed something different, such as skills that could enable them to communicate with different audiences and contribute to different discussions. The nuclear engineering students were clearly open to new ways of thinking and recognized the importance of building these skills. Students were especially interested in developing skills that would enable them to move beyond focusing on cost-benefit analyses.

Although some students expressed frustration with the program's lack of clear answers, it was evident that their discussions had generated important new perspectives that moved the conversation in different directions. For example, students recognized that it would be unproductive to try to evaluate the Fukushima events without first learning more about the history of nuclear power in Japan. In addition, students suggested that important insights might be drawn from conducting a comparative analysis of the different assumptions regarding the safety of nuclear power that were held in the U.S., Europe, and in Japan.

Different international perceptions of nuclear safety inform the nuclear engineer's role in each country. Students were attracted to the Summer School for a variety of reasons. Some were generally committed to the importance of nuclear energy in the future and were interested to learn more about how and why the events at Fukushima had jeopardized nuclear energy's reputation. Others were not clearly advocates of nuclear energy, but wanted to make sure that it was used correctly in the future, especially in developing countries. Still others were drawn to nuclear engineering by the lack of good planning that they had witnessed in their home countries and hoped that attending the Summer School would provide them with important information to help their home countries incorporate nuclear energy responsibly. The diversity of interests and concerns that attracted students to the Summer School point to the wide-ranging role of today's nuclear engineer. Whereas nuclear engineers in the past were expected to be advocates of the nuclear power industry, students today are drawn to the field for a diversity of reasons and will undoubtedly play different roles. One clear role does not exist. Each nuclear engineer is responsible for shaping his or her own role.

As they tried to gain a better understanding of the engineer's problem solving approaches, students started to ask how others solve problems. They wondered if everyone was doing their own version of cost-benefit analysis, or if there were entirely different approaches available. The shortfalls of cost-benefit analyses became clear as the students wondered if there was any value in comparing things that were fundamentally incommensurable. Students pointed out that it was paternalistic to label an individual as irrational and noted the shared societal value of respecting a diversity of perspectives. The trouble with many discussions about benefiting the public is the inherent assumption that the public is homogeneous. Students want to find ways of identifying and communicating their assumptions. They are looking to social scientists for help with these problems.

  • [1] To protect the privacy of the Summer School's participants, comments are not linked with individuals.
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