Nuclear energy: The moral choice

By Art Wharton

During the 2011 American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting in Washington, DC, a gathering of ANS members interested in social media and nuclear communications was held, with standing-room-only attendance. As the conversation went around the room, and people discussed their involvement in nuclear communications, a common thread held throughout: The participants felt a moral calling to advance nuclear science and technology through their work, and through their communications via social media. Most participants recounted an obligation that they felt to their community or their family, including the futures of their grandchildren.

Some of these people have been called “industry shills” by those who oppose the continued use of nuclear science and technology for the benefit of society, implying that a pro-nuclear stance is somehow imposed upon someone by the big bad industry tycoons in charge of a vast nuclear conspiracy. The reality is, I have personally met many people who chose to work in the nuclear industry because they advocated nuclear technology, not the other way around. These are the people who are leaders, or will be the future leaders, in the nuclear field.

Speaking of industry leaders, they recently collaborated on the development of the Principles of Conduct for Nuclear Power Plant Exporters. In the preamble, they call out six principles for focus: “Safety, Security, Environmental Protection, Compensation for Nuclear Damage, Nonproliferation, and Ethics.” I’m personally proud to be part of an industry that operates with these core values, and with a sincere feeling of responsibility for their product.

Nuclear professionals live on the same earth as everyone else, so they have a personal stake in utilizing this fascinating technology for the benefit of society, along with strong core values of safety and environmental responsibility. If you’re looking for the moral high-ground in an energy debate, start with advocating the use of nuclear energy.

I originally decided to work in nuclear energy because it was “cool” to me. When I first learned that the energy density of a single fuel pellet equaled almost a ton of coal, I had to learn more. When I was a young boy camping with a Boy Scout troop, they advocated leaving the campground in better condition than we found had it, so the energy density and cleanliness of nuclear energy compared with other energy sources was compelling to me as a young adult. I followed the “cool” path, in my eyes, not realizing at the time that I was making a moral or ethical choice.

That changed in an unexpected way when I graduated college, and I took an oath called The Obligation of the Engineer. At an overwhelming time, in which the excitement of a new career, the largest paycheck of my life, and a cross-country move to a new region were looming, I had an “aha moment” when I took the oath. Many readers of this blog are engineers, and many are not, but I think the oath carries with it a tremendous message worth ruminating on for all nuclear science and technology professionals:

I am an engineer, in my profession I take deep pride.
To it I owe solemn obligations.
Since the Stone Age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.
Engineers have made usable nature’s vast resources of material and energy for humanity’s benefit.
Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the principles of science and the means of technology.
Were it not for this heritage of accumulated experience, my efforts would be feeble.
As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance, and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.
As an engineer, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises.
When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good.
In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give the utmost.

- The Obligation of the Engineer

How can you tell if you’re talking to someone who’s taken that oath? Look at the pinky finger of their working hand, and they’ll have a modest, non-descript, stainless steel ring on it. I see many who embody this obligation as they uphold their devotion to safely implementing nuclear science and technology. I think that someone who reads this obligation slowly and deliberately can understand why emotions can run high in a time when nuclear science and technology comes under pressure. I won’t write any ad-hominem attacks on those who oppose nuclear science and technology, because I want today’s topic to be on the ethical and moral obligations we uphold in the nuclear science and technology field. I encourage engineers and non-engineers alike to renew their sense of moral focus on how their day jobs provide benefit to humanity, and to their own community.

Electrical power production provides life-saving opportunities. Refrigeration keeps food safe. Air conditioning saves many from heat stroke during the summer, and heating systems preserve life in the winter. The medical industry is dependent on electricity for many life-saving technologies. As you’re reading this paragraph, you’re probably listing out other things that electricity does to preserve and enhance life in ways that many people take for granted. Nuclear energy provides this life-saving electricity with the smallest footprint per unit of energy, and in my strong opinion, makes “the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.”

I have an obligation to give my knowledge, without reservation, for the public good. Sometimes, I don’t have all the answers. Organizations like the American Nuclear Society can be pivotal in our ability to bring knowledge together. I’ve grown as a person and as a professional from my association and participation in ANS events and governance. If you’re a member of the American Nuclear Society, as I suspect many of you are, you will find that ANS is consistent with this message of moral and ethical behavior as a society and as nuclear professionals. The ANS Code of Ethics gets specific, and the number one practice of professional conduct found in the ANS Code of Ethics is consistent with the rest of the industry:

We hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and fellow workers, work to protect the environment, and strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of our professional duties.

If you browse around the websites of nuclear industry companies, you’ll find that safety and environmental responsibility are consistently called out in their corporate core values. Safety is also the very core of the charter of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Maybe some people can read this and think that we just provide a lot of lip service, and that this is just good PR. Is it? Who pays attention to these things? Do news reporters sift through our corporate values, or Society ethics, or the Obligation of an Engineer before they report the news, or decide which “expert” interviewee to pay more attention to? If they did, I suspect that we’d see different words surrounding “Nuclear” in headlines.

Leaders pay attention to these things. They spend hours arguing over how they want to shape the words to affect the behaviors of the people they lead. They worry about whether they’ve communicated these values often enough, or well enough. If my CEO stopped me in the hallway today and asked me what the company core values were, I could recite them verbatim.

A breach of ethics represents the largest risk we face as we operate, execute projects, or form business deals. I encourage all of you to not only re-familiarize yourself with these values that your employers and your professional societies hold, but to take that confidence with you as you communicate about the benefits of nuclear science and technology. The facts are on your side, the moral high-ground is yours, and the highest standards of ethics and professional conduct will lead you. When in doubt, ask a friend; you have over 11,000 engineers, scientists, administrators, and educators representing more than 1,600 corporations, educational institutions, and government agencies at your disposal here at the American Nuclear Society.

______________________

Wharton

Art Wharton is a principal project engineer at Westinghouse Electric Company LLC in the Nuclear Power Plants product line. He is a member of the ANS Planning committee, the Operations and Power Division Program committee, the Operations and Power Division Executive Committee, is a Pittsburgh Local Section past chair, and is a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe. 

The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Westinghouse Electric Company LLC.

3 thoughts on “Nuclear energy: The moral choice

  1. Mark Miller

    Excellent article, Art!
    Your article made me think of another adage I’ve run across: “As long as you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters”.
    We engineers live and breathe by our moral fiber, ethics and integrity!

  2. Duane Twining

    To paraphrase from a great movie; A Few Good Men:
    You don’t have to wear a “ring” to have “ethics”.

  3. KATHY WALTERS

    So glad there are people out there like you. Really liked your article and nice to see you take your job with honor and pride, that a rare thing in today world.

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