Throughout centuries engineers had to face reality of balancing their professional, technical and scientific judgments with governmental laws/regulations and policies, business/corporate profits and investment interests, technological capabilities and local environmental and economical community needs. In order to keep this balance most of engineers were trained within widest possible engineering breath encompassing all aspects of engineering issues and projects including construction and exploitation phases as well as long-term impact on ecosystem, from point of view of ethics and methodology of natural sciences. Especially emphasizing ethical interpretation of engineering assessment uncertainties.
Unfortunately, during last 30 years, under guise of advancement and specialization such engineering programs have been almost completely abandoned creating generations of engineers compartmentalized in their education and ethics. Engineers began to focus solely on excellence in their narrow field practically abandoning personal responsibilities for wider moral and ethical ramification of their work, conveniently leaving them to arbitrary rule book of corporate management. One of reasons for the shift of balance toward fused, government and corporate, interests dominating engineering judgments, was collapse of governmental infrastructure funding and private Capital Expenditures in the US* as a result of among others “free trade” policies, severe unemployment or underemployment among engineers and real wage deflation due to policies of wholesale outsourcing of engineering services to Asia and Eastern Europe in recent decades.
Small engineering companies, previously vital part of engineering services supply chain, have been devastated by unfair foreign competition, either collapsed or were bought out and infused into corporate structure, often fronting for corporate social policies in regard to minority, women business etc., overall loosing importance and/or influence on economy and politics.
The trend of diminishing importance of engineers as decision makers within failing US industries over last decades, collapse of national, promotional programs of science and engineering within US society and dramatic loss engineer earning power, quickly reverberated in academic circles causing fall down in number of popular engineering degrees offered to and pursued by young Americans. While countries like China exponentially grew their, often US trained, engineering cadres, needed to support Chinese infrastructure growth at levels unheard of in history of civilization.
Many engineers, under pressure of corporate management, in order to keep their continuing employment and benefits in tact, embraced compartmentalization of their duties and responsibilities, in ways that often severely compromised technological solutions and vital interests of economy, competitiveness, health & safety and sustainability of local environment and community, with which often they had no connection of any kind. Such profound, often economically induced, by corporate/governmental decision makers, change of attitude of engineering staff, seems rampant these days and very likely contributing to system deficiencies and associated unnecessary social costs as well as played significant role in spectacular industrial disasters, like 2005 New Orleans, “Katrina” flood or 2010 BP oil rig explosion and unprecedented environmental contamination as well as tragedies of 1986 Chernobyl or 2011 Fukushima meltdowns that will be felt for decades or centuries to come.
In too many cases engineering error analyses and safety assessment models are being diminished or ignored and financial risk assessment models take priority in consideration of critical stages of the project. In other words, engineering re-design options are often abandoned for increase of project insurance coverage or hedge against construction failure or other purely financial “remedies”, often backed by governments. Such a financialization of risk analysis of engineering/construction/production activities, impacting local and/or global populace and environment, constitute increasingly common and very disturbing trend.
Case in point of the issue may be earthquake hazard assessment process at one west coast nuclear power plant after discovery of new, extensive tectonic fault system, capable to generate M6.7 earthquake, located 2000 ft from the plant.
December 3, 2014, written statement of Dr. Sam Blakeslee, Ph.D., to Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works prepared for hearing titled ‘NRC’s implementation of the Fukushima near-term task force recommendations and other actions to ensure and maintain nuclear safety’** suggests tremendous ethical pressure on geophysical engineers and scientists toward perhaps, abandoning sound methodological practices, such as application of experimental stage, unproven, methods for local ground motion evaluation, and lowering quality of technical standards in order to meet them, possibly, in order to merely satisfy narrow corporate interests.
In the real world of engineering uncertainties, such a pressure toward making definite ethical choices, aligned with corporate interest, may potentially, in this case, lead to abandoning perspective of full re-licensing process, as required by law. Such a decision, in face of aging nuclear power facility, almost identical to Fukushima NPP, and like Fukushima before disaster, exposed to new, yet unmitigated, severe seismic threats, would be tragic in post nuclear disasters’ world.
Should, in this case, governmental and corporate geophysicists, abandon their comfortable compartmental thinking and, take responsibility for welfare of those who entrusted lives to their scientific and technological authority? Or to leave such a choice to federal bureaucrats.
After Fukushima disaster we know, that power balance among multiple stakeholders in process of engineering risk assessment and ethical judgments based on it, not only could catastrophically affect corporate interests, local economy, population and environment but world globally.
But, I guess, everybody just wants to do his/her job, not be involved in any ethical dilemma and not to think about devil’s good intentions. What are your intentions?
*Except for Gas and Oil industry and military industrial complex.
**For details of the report see http://a4nr.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/120314-Blakeslee-EPW.pdf
Fukushima disaster continues after half a decade: