How nuclear education has shaped the nuclear debate
by Andrew Teller
Since this issue of ENS NEWS is devoted to nuclear education, I decided to dedicate my column to a topic that would follow its general theme. My usual concern being the investigation of the particularities of the nuclear debate, it was only natural to ask myself whether nuclear education could affect it. Since the advocacy of nuclear energy lies mainly in the hands of representatives of the nuclear industry1, it would not be surprising if the way they were educated had an influence on the way they argue in favour of it.
The first observation that can be made is that the contents of courses related to nuclear sciences have significantly evolved over time. Thirty years ago, books on nuclear engineering, to mention the area I know best, were only about reactor physics: the transport equation, thermal-hydraulics, reactor kinetics and other similar core2 issues. Lots of equations and little space for matters not directly related to the workings of reactors. Today, one only has to look at the table of contents of modern textbooks to see that many other issues are now part of the standard curriculum. The nuclear fuel cycle, waste disposal, terrorism, proliferation, biological effects of radiation, once considered as peripheral to the main engineering concerns and therefore relegated to specialized monographs, are now included as a matter of fact in introductory textbooks. Such evolution is to be welcomed. Nuclear power generation has many implications for society at large, which is why they should be tackled early on, not as afterthoughts once the more prestigious scientific chapters have been completed. Does this change of emphasis prepare nuclear scientists to engage more effectively with stakeholders of nuclear projects? In a way, yes: being led earlier to take a broader view of nuclear power generation leads to a better understanding of the needs and concerns of end-users, hence to better engineering decisions.
The second observation is that, despite the broader scope of modern textbooks, not everything has changed in nuclear education. A moment of reflexion is enough to realize that some permanent features of any nuclear curriculum will have an impact on the approach of nuclear scientists to debating. Four of them spring to mind:
Being continually faced with physical systems exhibiting numerous feedback loops so that the behaviour of such systems is determined by the combination of conflicting influences. In such cases, no qualitative reasoning can suffice to give an idea of what will happen to the system under a given set of circumstances; quantitative analysis is indispensable to take proper account of the respective orders of magnitude of the factors at play.
Being exposed to the pervading need for engineering compromises between conflicting objectives: we are not living in an ideal world where all considerations align themselves neatly to point to a single, ideal solution beating all others on every count. We live in a messy world where optimizing means consciously accepting some drawbacks because it is not possible to avoid all of them at the same time.
Needless to say, the above-mentioned habits cannot be properly exercised without exhibiting at the same time an urge for accuracy both when reasoning and when handling the figures.
Numeracy: more than many other scientific disciplines, nuclear sciences require juggling quantities ranging from the very small to the very big, both ends falling outside the bounds of everyday experience. Nuclear scientists develop a habit of dealing with such quantities that certainly exceeds the needs of most other people.
One might be tempted to conclude that having acquired such scientific discipline would give them an advantage in the debate. After all, it has been repeatedly observed that the critics of nuclear energy usually favour less rigorous approaches and avoid quantitative considerations as much as they can. Unfortunately, the technical superiority of the former does not translate into a practical one over the latter, far from it. When engaging in the debate, nuclear specialists end up being hampered by their training in two ways3:
They all too easily come out as confusing. Reality is rarely simple. Explaining the outcome of physical phenomena involving numerous factors requires lots of ifs and buts. No wonder that nuclear scientists, trained to pay all due respect to accuracy, struggle occasionally to explain a point at issue in simple terms. They end up being no match to people who promote their views with easy one-liners obtained precisely at the expense of accuracy.
They are often accused of being arrogant. After a bit of introspection, my conclusion is that this accusation is a misrepresentation, but that their complaint is not completely unfounded. What is perceived by the critics of nuclear energy is, I guess, not so much arrogance as irritation. And room for irritation there is: after so much time spent learning how to define compromises between conflicting requirements, it is only too human to feel ruffled by people who assert that your solution is faulty on each and every count and that theirs combines all possible advantages. There are simply no examples of such situations in real life: all coins have two sides and it does not take a university degree in nuclear engineering to know that. Arguing with people who believe in drawback-free solutions can tax the patience of those who know otherwise.
Should then anything be changed in the way nuclear scientists are trained? Of course not. Nuclear education is still about forming able specialists, not skilful communicators. The more sensible decision, already made by the nuclear industry several years ago, is to delegate the communication part to specialists while leaving the technical material in the hands of the specialists. This is a move that is not welcome by the anti-nuclear movements since it contributes mightily to leveling the playing field. In private discussions however, it is not a bad thing to bear in mind the way our education can influence our reactions and remember that patience is the key word: patience when having to delve into complex technical issues for the sake of non-specialists and patience when talking to believers in single-sided coins.
1 This is something that was pointed out very early on by the anti-nuclear folks.
2 Both in the sense of central and in the sense of reactor core-related.
3 There is third impediment not directly related to nuclear education: being rigorous is expected only from the pro-nuclear, not from the anti-nuclear. The asymmetry affecting the parties taking part in the nuclear debate was described in my column published in ENS News no 10, Informing the Public.