ENERGY, ENGINEERING, AND ETHICS
JOHN F. AHEARNE
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society
Research Triangle Park, North Carolina
The President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology said this about the importance of energy (PCAST, 1997):
The United States faces major energy-related challenges as it enters the twenty-first century. Our economic well-being depends on reliable, affordable supplies of energy. Our environmental well-being—from improved urban air quality to abating the risk of global warming—requires a mix of energy sources that emits less carbon dioxide and other pollutants than today’s mix does. Our national security requires secure supplies of oil or alternatives to it, as well as of prevention of nuclear proliferation. And for reasons of economy, environment, security, and stature as a world power alike, the United States must maintain its leadership in the science and technology of energy supply and use.
Economically, expenditures on energy account for 7 to 8 percent of gross economic product in the United States and worldwide and a similar fraction of the value of U.S. and world trade. Furthermore, environmentally, energy supply accounts for a large share of the most worrisome environmental problems at every geographic scale.
Outstanding issues include: how energy is obtained (from which countries, from which fuels, and in what way); how it is used (in what quantity, which brings in conservation, energy efficiency, the energy portfolio [hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, natural gas, coal]); and how it is distributed and transferred. All of these issues have ethical dimensions.
HOW ENERGY IS OBTAINED
The way we obtain energy is the subject of political battles. Should we open the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration? Should we allow offshore drilling (e.g., off of Santa Barbara)? Should we open for drilling other lands controlled by the U.S. Department of the Interior (e.g., in the Rocky Mountains)?
There also are less obvious political battles, for example, means of support for certain kinds of energy. What kind of subsidies should be given, if any? Today, wind power enjoys a 1.7 cents/kwhr1 production subsidy, which extends for 10 years (Deutch et al., 2003). The argument for subsidizing wind energy is that it is an emission-free, unlimited resource. But nuclear energy is also emission free, nearly unlimited, and, like wind power, expensive. Should nuclear energy also get a production credit? A recent MIT study concluded that nuclear energy should get the same credit as wind power (Deutch et al., 2003). Yet nuclear power is not included in the emission-free portfolio in the Kyoto agreements. Nuclear power in the United States does have the limited, largely misunderstood, Price-Anderson protection.
The United States gets its energy from many sources, but only a few are domestic. These include oil, coal, gas, nuclear power, and hydropower.2 Every energy source has opponents.
Opposition to hydropower comes mainly from people who would like to restore the canyons that were flooded to create the reservoirs for power generation dams (e.g., the Hetch Hetchy reservoir) and people who want to remove dams to restore habitats (e.g., to allow fish, such as salmon, to return unimpeded to their spawning grounds). Opposition to natural gas comes primarily from people who object to new pipelines running through their areas. Although the combustion of natural gas, a fossil fuel, produces greenhouse gas, this objection is seldom raised because gas contributes only about half as much greenhouse gas as coal per unit of energy produced. Opposition to oil is focused on U.S. reliance on foreign oil and proposals to drill in protected areas. Nuclear power generates intense feelings both for and against, and objective analysis is not a trademark of the extremists on either side. (Many years ago, Daniel F. Ford of the Union of Concerned Scientists called nuclear power a religion in search of a bible.) Opposition to nuclear power is based on many factors: radioactive waste; fear of catastrophic accidents; the risk of proliferation; and the connection of nuclear power with organizations considered to be untrustworthy. For example, the rhetoric used in a recent presentation by Dr. Thomas B. Cochran (director of the
nuclear program for the Natural Resources Defense Council], on September 3, 2003, at a National Research Council Board of Radioactive Waste Management meeting is illustrative. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) had proposed redefining some waste that was previously considered high-level waste as “incidental waste” and, therefore, able to be treated as low-level waste. The presenter had filed a suit in opposition to DOE in a federal court. The following examples from notes submitted to the board give an idea of the depth of feeling among those opposed to this action:
DOE unlawfully closed two high-level waste (HLW) tanks…
DOE unlawfully promulgated DOE Order 435.1…
DOE used junk science to falsely portray this “incidental waste” as low-level waste.
The first declaration of [the DOE witness] falsely states…
[The DOE witness] attempted to mislead the Court…
[The DOE secretary], in his…letter to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, repeats the baseless assertion…
The Secretary misinforms Congress…
[The DOE secretary] misinforms Congress when he implies …
This is simply false….
In the last quarter century, many ideological battles have been fought over federal funding for energy research and development (R&D). During the Nixon years, funding for nuclear power, particularly for breeder reactors, rose, but funding for solar and other renewable energy sources was stagnant. Under President Carter, solar and other renewables were favored, and Carter waged a major, but unsuccessful, battle to kill the breeder reactor program. But he did continue the policy announced at the end of the Ford administration not to support the reprocessing of nuclear fuel. The Reagan administration reversed course—being more in favor of nuclear power and less in favor of renewables. Reagan also reversed the policy on reprocessing, although to little effect because the economics were not favorable to reprocessing. Things changed again under Clinton, who was a strong supporter of renewables, at least in words, but who eventually zeroed research on nuclear power. The Bush administration has taken nuclear power out of the woodshed but has also supported renewables, perhaps in response to pressure by Congress.
HOW ENERGY IS USED
Energy is primarily used to heat, to cool, and to transport people and things. Here again problems have arisen. As recent blackouts in the United States and Italy have demonstrated, the electrical transmission and distribution system is fragile in both technical and human terms. Part of the solution may be to install more and higher voltage transmission lines. But siting these lines is extraordinarily difficult. (This is one reason the energy bill currently before Congress
includes a controversial provision to allow a federal preemption for siting lines.) American Electric Power recently noted that it takes about 10 years to get approval for a relatively short high-voltage line. Sometimes it takes much longer.
Even highly touted wind power has run into problems. A proposed wind farm off Nantucket Island in Massachusetts has aroused vigorous opposition among local and summer residents. Coal plants are perceived to be “dirty”; opponents usually argue in favor of natural gas generation. But some utilities are wary of building natural gas plants, because generation costs would then be at the mercy of price rises in a single source.
Human problems were integrally involved in the Three Mile Island accident, the Chernobyl accident, the Japanese Toka Mura accident, the large hole in the reactor lid at the Davis-Besse plant, and the enforced closing of the 17-reactor fleet of the Japanese utility, TEPCO.
Many ethical issues are related to maintaining objectivity, a form of honesty. Unfortunately, ideology often trumps objectivity, and too often “the end justifies the means.” I cannot believe some of the ardent supporters and ardent opponents of various energy sources really believe the harsh rhetoric they use. Many who espouse these positions put their trust in their leaders and do not think through the issues and arguments carefully. These trusted leaders are often very smart, and, I believe, they know that some of their statements are, at best, exaggerations. They are like some managers of federal programs who see only one side of an issue and who believe that nothing will go wrong and that things will turn out positively. Is this unethical? I believe it is.
Technology professionals have a responsibility to analyze issues rigorously and with complete objectivity. Many citizens do not have the background, the resources, the time, or the interest to dig deeply into technical issues. Therefore, the public must rely on the professionals, who, therefore, carry a heavy burden. The following examples show the importance of objective analysis by engineers.
We are familiar with the warnings about the O-rings that were not heeded and led to the destruction of the shuttle Challenger. Now we are hearing about similar unheeded warnings about the tiles on Columbia. On September 26, 2003, The New York Times carried a story about Rodney Rocha, the chief engineer in the Structural Engineering Division, Johnson Space Center. Five days into the Columbia flight, he and his coworkers reviewed pictures of foam breaking off and striking the left wing of the shuttle. Because they could not tell exactly where the foam hit, they thought an effort should be made to examine the wing. Mr. Rocha proceeded to send messages to management urging that satellite imagery be used. In one message, he wrote to upper level managers asking, “Can we petition (beg) for outside agency assistance?” His requests were denied, and one
manager told him, “I’m not going to be Chicken Little about this” (Glanz and Schwartz, 2003).
Furious debates are under way about the Yucca Mountain repository. The majority of the technical community supports geologic repositories in general and Yucca Mountain in particular. Nevada has mounted a furious, years-long opposition. Given the way Yucca Mountain was chosen (by Congress), this opposition is rational; the selection process replaced the balanced process set up in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and violated the deliberative process recommended in several National Academies reports (NRC, 1989, 1996, 2001). However, independent groups, such as the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board and the National Academies, have not found anything seriously wrong with the Yucca Mountain site (NRC, 1992, 1995, 2001).
Heated arguments have also arisen over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) new rule on new source reviews. The acting EPA administrator, Marianne Horinko, said in a statement, “The changes we are making in this rule will provide industrial facilities and power plants with the regulatory certainty they need. This rule will result in safer, more efficient operation of these facilities, and, in the case of power plants, more reliable operations that are environmentally sound and provide more affordable energy” (Energy Daily, 2003). A supporting comment was made by Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute: “With the issuance of the final rule today, we are returning to the common-sense standard that has applied throughout most of the history of the Clean Air Act. Today’s regulations will lift a major cloud of uncertainty, boosting our efforts to provide affordable, reliable electric service and clean air.”
However, S. William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, said, “This rule eviscerates the NSPR [New Source Performance Review] program and represents a huge step backward in our efforts to achieve and sustain clean air. Not only will it degrade existing protections of public health and environment, it will be very difficult to implement and enforce” (Energy Daily, 2003). Rebecca Stanfield, staff attorney for United States Public Interest Research Group, also weighed in on the subject: “For decades to come, Americans will be forced to breathe air containing more harmful smog and soot because of the action the Bush administration is taking today” (Energy Daily, 2003).
Other programs in the offing are raising issues related to engineering accuracy. For example, uninformed enthusiasm is growing among lawmakers and the public for hydrogen as a magic fuel and for essentially inexhaustible energy from fusion. Both of these will be extremely hard to develop. Engineers understand the difficulties—the many hard steps required to go from concept or laboratory scale to full-scale, economically feasible operation. Now is the time for engineers to speak up, to speak truth to power.
Ethical issues related to nuclear power abound concerning proliferation; the pros and cons of reprocessing; questions about breeder reactors; and questions about the development of new nuclear weapons. The September 2003 issue of Nuclear News brought out some of the issues involving the ethics of engineering related to nuclear power. “[S]ome activists have demanded that transmission lines be buried underground. They seem to be unaware that subsurface installation … actually brings the lines closer to nearby residents and workers” (Taylor, 2003). John Deutch, MIT University Professor, said that “Taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emission” (Nuclear News, 2003a). Regarding Indian Point, a nuclear power station on the Hudson River north of New York City, “Opponents of Indian Point, which include some state and local lawmakers and activist organizations, want the plant closed down for safety reasons.” FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) concluded, “After carefully considering all available information, we have reasonable assurance that appropriate protective measures to protect the public health and safety of surrounding communities can be taken and are capable of being implemented in the event of a radiological incident at the Indian Point facility.” However, “Indian Point’s home county, Westchester County, refused to submit documentation to the state pertaining to the emergency plan…” (Nuclear News, 2003b).
A report by the Progressive Policy Institute on the Bush administration’s performance on homeland security also relates to nuclear power plants. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, quickly issued heightened security regulations for all nuclear power plants…. If anything, the NRC could be faulted for overkill, as nuclear power plants have always been extremely secure….” Nuclear plants received the only grade of A in the report. The overall administration grades were C or D (Nuclear News, 2003c). The French government eased restriction on thermal releases from nuclear power plants in early August to allow Electricité de France (EdF) to safely maintain the grid while satisfying the soaring demand during a heat wave affecting most of Europe. “Since nuclear power provides some 80 percent of France’s electricity, however, measures had to be taken to ensure that EdF could rely on its nuclear fleet…. Soon after the exemptions were announced, antinuclear organizations attacked the government, claiming that the measures were taken to help the nuclear industry. The media soon shifted their attention, however, when the estimate of total heat-related fatalities had increased significantly, reaching more than 10,000 on August 21” (Nuclear News, 2003d).
In comments about possible budget cuts, a DOE official said, “The larger point is that the closure of the MIT [research] reactor, which is viewed internationally as the most important nuclear engineering program and research reactor in the world, would send a negative signal to the nuclear engineering community” (Michal, 2003).
“Editors have an important role in reporting news about nuclear energy …
[I]n The Augusta [Georgia] Chronicle, news articles about the Savannah River Site often had a skull-and-crossbones icon imbedded in them. The words ‘radiation’ and ‘plutonium’ were usually preceded by the adjectives ‘lethal’ or ‘deadly’” (Reinig and McKibben, 2003).
In the United Kingdom, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published a document on nuclear safety regulation that said it “accepts that good safety and good commercial performance are both factors of good management. The document warns, however, that there is potential for tension between them” (Nuclear News, 2003e).
People on both sides have a tendency to exaggerate to counter an opponent who is exaggerating. But, that is wrong and self-defeating in the long run. Once credibility is lost, it is hard to regain—and may not, in fact, be able to be regained. The debate on nuclear energy and other energy issues would be enhanced if knowledgeable professionals would clarify the issues and separate fact from opinion. People in the technical community who understand these technologies have a duty to address them objectively.
Of course, engineers are citizens, and they have the same right to voice their opinions as other citizens. However, once someone identifies himself or herself as an engineer, he or she puts on a mantle of careful analysis and objectivity, which should not be misused. This is a heavy burden and, unfortunately, it is frequently not accepted.
OBSTACLES TO OBJECTIVE ANALYSIS
Here are some examples of obstacles (or barriers) to the objective analysis of technical issues related to complicated problems:
A lack of understanding of the technology is often coupled with overconfidence. Two examples are the Three Mile Island accident and the destruction of the Chernobyl reactor.
There may be pressures from above to suppress unpleasant information, as there was in the Challenger episode.
Engineers do not always identify fragilities in a system, or, if they do, they do not always communicate their concerns to those in power. This may have been the case in the large blackout in the Northeast last summer.
The biggest problem in engineering ethics may be the difficulty of speaking truth to power. “… [S]ome government researchers will face a different ethical challenge: ‘to speak truth to power’. [As Lewis Branscomb wrote,] ‘The users of our results, the decision makers who need our advice, will always press us to be more sure of ourselves than our data permit, for it would make their jobs easier.’ This is one challenge the government researcher faces: to insist on an accurate
description of what is known and what is not, to include uncertainty in the estimates, and to be clear just how far the [technology and] science can take you. A more difficult challenge comes when the [professional’s] position, based on his or her research, contradicts a strongly held position of senior political appointees. These situations, while perhaps rare, can place the government researcher in a dilemma: acquiesce or leave” (Ahearne, 1999, p. 42).
Industry researchers also face the challenge of bringing results which differ from the company’s desires and, if necessary, must be willing to disagree in public. Perhaps the most publicized example in recent years in the United States [was] the silence of researchers employed by the tobacco industry, as the industry publicly claimed that the evidence was inconclusive linking smoking to lung cancer (Ahearne, 1999, p. 43).
Studies in the ethics of large and powerful corporations have long attempted to identify the specific structures behind ethical failures. While results of the studies differ somewhat, the list of root causes frequently revolves around three structures: (1) the loss of an outward-focused organizational purpose; (2) the failure of effective concern for diverse stakeholders; and (3) the suppression of internal dissent (Branick, 2003, p. 8–9).
High ethics firms inevitably have some form of ‘open-door policy’ where no threat of punishment hovers over those who are willing to report what they perceive to be wrongdoing or just plain stupidity (Branick, 2003, p. 10).
As a last resort, when lives are in jeopardy, a professional must go public, which will most likely end the professional’s career. Ethical behavior can be a hard road to follow.
Norm Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, has written about the ethical challenges facing engineers: “… engineering has a great deal to do with ethics, and most of the engineers whom I have seen get into trouble on ethical matters did so not because they were not decent people but because they failed to recognize that they were confronting an ethical issue.” Augustine notes that “the things engineers do have consequences, both positive and negative, some unintended, often widespread, and occasionally irreversible. In fact, the ethical content of the decisions confronting engineers is increasing as the impact of their work reaches more and more people around the world” (Augustine, 2002).
Let me end with the favorite quote of the late Dr. Edward Obert, a long-time professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The quote is from Socrates: “When my sons grow up, I would ask you, my friends, to punish them if they care about anything more than virtue.”
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Glanz, J., and J. Schwartz. 2003. Dogged Engineer’s Effort to Assess Shuttle Damage. The New York Times, September 26: A1, A16.
Holly, C. 2003. EPA’s New NSR Rule: Common Sense Change or Massive Loophole? Energy Daily, August 28, 2003.
Kirsen, S. 2003. Wind Power’s New Current. New York Times, August 28, A1, A16.
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——. 1992. Ground Water at Yucca Mountain: How High Can It Rise? Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
——. 1995. Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
——. 1996. Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
——. 2001. Disposition of High-Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel: The Continuing Societal and Technical Challenges. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
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——. 2003b. FEMA, NRC approve site’s emergency plan. Nuclear News 46(10): 15.
——. 2003c. Top grade for nuclear plants; lower for materials. Nuclear News 46(10): 27.
——. 2003d. Late news in brief. Nuclear News 46(10): 17.
——. 2003e. U.K. nuclear regulator presents new strategy. Nuclear News 46(10): 45.
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