A Viable Nuclear Industry
A DISCUSSION OFReimagining Nuclear Engineering
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In “Reimagining Nuclear Engineering” (Issues, Spring 2021), Aditi Verma and Denia Djokić self-define as intellectual anomalies. There is an unwritten rule in the nuclear sector that only people with nuclear engineering degrees are legitimized to have a valuable opinion or knowledge about anything nuclear. Thus, it is very unusual for someone from within the nuclear sector to recognize the major intellectual shortcomings of a discipline that’s increasingly insular and siloed, and which receives any knowledge coming from outside its own ranks as a threat. Verma and Djokić, as nuclear-trained people, are legitimized in the eyes of the sector, but they are also breaking the second major rule of the nuclear sector: militancy. Indeed, they are exceptional among nuclear engineers. Both are a new and most-needed type: the humanist nuclear engineer.
Having researched and written about nuclear economic history for over a decade, I have come across these two unwritten rules far more often that I would like to acknowledge. Yet I reckon that nuclear engineers (and nuclear institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Atomic Energy Community) are, for the most part, the victims of their own training and traditions. As Verma and Djokić expose, in the academic curricula of nuclear engineers across the globe there is little room for self-critical reflection of a sector with over half a century of history to ponder. For sure, reflection upon nuclear incidents and accidents exists, but wider self-introspection about nuclear impacts on society rarely occurs within nuclear training.
Those who do not understand that some scientific advances cause concerns in society express their surprise by arguing that “technology has no ideology.” Even if one could accept this premise, it is impossible to ignore that the groups, institutions, and people who promote a particular technological option do have implicit and explicit ways of understanding what society should be. Technologies are not installed in a vacuum, but rather are inserted into a specific place and time. This social context determines whether a technology has (or not) a similar reception in different societies. Alternative technologies have different potentials to alter the social fabric and ways of life, generate interest or anxiety, and promote businesses (or cause the disappearance of others). In short, technology and society interact and transform mutually.
When asked about these issues, many of the nuclear engineers we interviewed for our research claim that those are issues that do not concern engineers. After all, they are concerned with the design, building, and use of nuclear reactors and infrastructures. The impacts of those and the associated societal complexities are for the politicians to solve, according to most of the engineers we interviewed.
Verma and Djokić aim at building bridges to close the gap between nuclear and social sciences. By introducing these other aspects into the academic curricula of nuclear engineering, nuclear engineers may become more aware of how their decisions have long-lasting impacts beyond the technology itself and may help to improve some of the blind spots that are likely to prove problematic down the line. This is a wake-up call for creating a new curriculum for the humanist nuclear engineer of the future.
Full Professor of Economic History
Director, Institute for Advanced Research in Business and Economics
Universidad Publica de Navarra (Spain)
Aditi Verma and Denia Djokić call for rethinking our collective approach to the benefits and risks of nuclear technology—a call that is crucial and timely. As humanity confronts the catastrophic consequences of climate change, questions related to the viability of nuclear energy to achieve a decarbonized world abound. The authors, however, push the boundaries of the current conversation by arguing that what is required to make nuclear energy “viable” for the twenty-first century is much more than just an exercise in technological development.
Nuclear energy has a role to play if investments in this technology are informed and driven by a human-centered approach. This requires nations to act to mitigate the risks that the nuclear technology enterprise generates and unevenly distributes across societies. It also demands engineers to become more self-aware of their role as “servants of societies” so that in their design of complex nuclear technological systems, they also account for critical social issues including equality, environmental sustainability, and intergenerational justice.
Two critical arguments emerge as central in the authors essay.
First, nuclear technological decisionmaking ought to be embedded into broader multidimensional societal processes. Throughout history, technological advancements have shaped societies, cultures, and nations. Almost always, new technologies have brought about significant benefits but equally altered social norms and environmental habitats. The acceleration and disruption of technological innovation, especially in the past century, have too often taken place in the absence of strong national mitigation strategies. Nuclear power plants, for example, while contributing to economic opportunities in the communities where they operate, have also heightened local safety risks, and led to the production of nuclear waste that remains today one of the most serious intergenerational environmental issue our societies remain incapable of solving.
Verma and Djokić explain how the calculation of risks in the nuclear field all too often remains the purview of a small and often homogenous group of decisionmakers (whom the authors of a related Issues article call the gatekeepers). To make nuclear energy viable for the future, nuclear technological investments must be pondered and assessed based on broader factors including intergenerational justice, environmental sustainability, and community needs for economic equity and safety.
Second, to achieve a human-centered approach to nuclear technology, future generations of nuclear engineers must be educated in both the arts and the sciences. While Verma and Djokić praise their scientific training, they also acknowledge how their exposure to other disciplines, including the social sciences, has helped them become more conscious of their social responsibility as engineers.
In redesigning and rethinking how future nuclear engineers ought to be trained, the authors point to a radical rethink of the current approach to the probabilistic risk assessment that dominates the field. While probabilistic risk assessment relies on the rule of logics and plausible reasoning, it also severely limits out-of-the-box thinking, experimentation, and creativity. An interdisciplinary education will provide nuclear engineers with a full toolbox of strategies and approaches, and make them more socially aware and therefore more effective in their own work as engineers.
Ultimately, the authors’ argument is powerful and reaches beyond the nuclear field. In a time of social and racial reckoning in the United States and around the world, they call for engineers to contribute to this historical moment by embracing a broader and deeper meaning of their role for the good of their communities, nations, and the world.
Executive Director, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Harvard Kennedy School
At a time when addressing climate change has refocused the world on the possibilities of nuclear energy and when commercial developers envision a new wave of twenty-first century nuclear products, Aditi Verma and Denia Djokić wisely ask the nuclear energy community to pause, reflect, and reconsider their approach to deploying nuclear technology.
Deploying nuclear technology is a socio-technical challenge whose success is far less likely if treated solely as a technology development challenge. The authors wisely describe the task in terms of their personal stories, recognizing that acceptance of the technology is the sum of many personal stories. Their article should stand up to history as a critical contribution in the philosophy of nuclear energy development.
Professor and Chair
Department of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences
University of Michigan