Ethics in words: The conundrum of nuclear safety

Paul Dombrowski
University of Central Florida
Spring 2011

Nuclear energy is becoming an increasingly important component of the overall national energy picture. In a technical communication course for juniors and seniors, both majors and non-majors, we discuss the ethical challenges of representing nuclear energy realistically and fairly in discourse. We examine how everyday language can become confused, misused, and misunderstood when applied to technical and scientific information. We also discuss how this  difficulty is compounded by the emotional, political, and world-view dimensions of the discourse context.  

To foster student engagement, we hold a debate on whether Florida should have more nuclear power plants and focus on the use of the term and concept “safety” in relation to radiation, in its denotations, and evocative connotations. We compare the most authoritative sources of information to the less rigorous but publicized sources.

Students research general media sources and websites about nuclear energy and radiation concerns, and quickly recognize many disparities and selective representations about radiation. They see the great complexity and indeterminacy of weighing costs and benefits, for example comparing the cost of disposing of nuclear waste to the world-wide cost of rising sea levels, altered weather, famine, and disease from massive greenhouse gas emissions.

Students also gather data and report on the overall energy picture in their households, the state of Florida, and the nation, focusing on sources of energy as well as projected trends for the next 20 years (the time frame with which the state Public Service Commission operates).

Each individual or group presents separate reports on the complexity of the issue and on each side of the controversy. The course culminates in a spirited formal debate. Students who have taken the course have all said that they enjoyed it and learned a great deal about an important issue.

They see, for instance, how the outcomes of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are oftentimes exaggerated and distorted, with the media and others sources paying most attention to dramatic, even melodramatic, snippets but downplaying or ignoring conflicting information from authoritative sources.

We examine statements made by several environmental organizations opposed to nuclear energy. We then see what the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded about the effects of Chernobyl following a review of numerous comprehensive studies in the 20 years following the event. We also examine what the U.S. Department of Energy has concluded about Three Mile Island in the 20 years following the event after considering numerous studies by many agencies including the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The differences are stark—night versus day—but, for whatever reasons, we rarely ever hear about these differences in the public media.

We see, too, how the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan are now thriving metropolises and world-class tourist and convention destinations even after having suffered the most catastrophic radiation exposure imaginable. We examine photos and read reports of the massive human suffering caused by the atomic bombing of these cities—the most massive exposure to radiation that has ever occurred—in 1945. We then examine marketing information from the convention and visitors bureaus of these two cities, touting them as wonderful places to live, work, and visit with their ever-growing populations, now over one million each. Both cities have many sports stadiums, convention centers, and schools, even within a stone’s throw of ground zero.

Many are surprised to learn, too, of the heated controversy within  federal government agencies about the disposal of nuclear waste, pitting the EPA against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Thus, students learn that “the government” is not a monolith. Equally ardent and knowledgeable scientists and technicians argue on either side of the issue, with mountains of technical information on each side.

To lighten the tone of our class, we sprinkle in a few videos relating to tests to ensure the safety of nuclear waste vessels (“casks”) during transportation—the strenuousness and extreme violence of the tests always brings oohs and aahs, gasps and laughter. One slams a surplus F-4 fighter at ~500 m.p.h. into a massive concrete wall like a reactor containment vessel. Another takes a remote-control freight train traveling at 100 m.p.h. and slams into a transportation vessel straddling the tracks—very dramatic! And no leaks!

Students learn how one’s understanding of “benefit” and “cost” and “risk” and “safety” are shaped by the media, the utilities, the regulatory agencies, political leaders, and the public itself. Things simply are not as neat and simple as they seem, even in highly technical matters.  Even the base physical data are debated as to what they mean and how they should be applied in civic matters. The most important outcome, however, is to learn the importance of being well-informed on a topic and ethically responsible when communicating about important social issues of a technical nature.

Hiroshima Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Hiroshima Navigator.”

Nagasaki Prefectural Tourisms Federation. “Welcome to Nagasaki in Japan.”

Sandia National Laboratory. “F-4 Crash Test.”

U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. “Video: Department of Energy, Cask Drop Testing.”

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Fact Sheet on the Three Mile Island Accident.”

World Health Organization. “Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident.” September 5, 2005.  Also: