Journal Article - Issues in Science and Technology

A Viable Nuclear Industry

| Summer 2021

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.

  – Via Issues in Science and Technology.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Giovannini, Francesca. A Viable Nuclear Industry.” Issues in Science and Technology, (Summer 2021) .

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