Journal of Applied Ethics and Philosophy;vol. 4


Three Nuclear Disasters and a Hurricane : Some Reflections on Engineering Ethics

Davis, Michael

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JaLCDOI : 10.14943/jaep.4.1
KEYWORDS : Chernobyl;Fukushima;Katrina;Three Mile Island;precautionary principle


The nuclear disaster that Japan suffered at Fukushima in the months following March 11, 2011 has been compared with other major nuclear disasters, especially, Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986). It is more like Chernobyl in severity, the only other 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale; more like Three Mile Island in long-term effects. Yet Fukushima is not just another nuclear disaster. In ways important to engineering ethics, it is much more like Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans than like any nuclear disaster. It is (primarily) a consequence of a natural disaster, the enormous earthquake and tsunami that wrecked much of northeast Japan. One lesson of Fukushima, one shared with Katrina, concerns the different roles engineers have at different stages in an engineering project (planning, designing, management, and operations). In the planning stage, engineers seem to have relatively little power to affect certain early large-scale trade-offs between public safety and public welfare. Another lesson may be the importance of not leaving complex technical systems untended. The events that made the disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl inevitable lasted only a few minutes or hours; the events that made the disasters in New Orleans and Fukushima inevitable were spread over several days. Fukushima avoided a more serious disaster because the plants were not abandoned in the way New Orleans was. A third lesson concerns our ideas of heroism, especially our sense that heroism is sometimes one’s duty. An engineer’s duty sometimes includes protecting others from harm even at the risk of the engineer’s life.