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Dissent about Nuclear Safety



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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Year 1992
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
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  • Posted 12 years and 10 months ago


    Whether Alison Turner should express her reservations
    depends upon several factors. Some of the issues are technical.
    Some involve the importance of particular safety regulations.
    Also involved is the power structure of the company and perhaps
    her judgment of the motives and scruples of higher

    Apparently she is uncomfortable with the assumption that the
    heat exchangers have 95% of capacity. How implausible does she
    think this estimate is and how far off? If she believes that
    this is probably an unrealistic estimate, made in good faith
    but probably an overestimation, does she have any good grounds
    for challenging its accuracy? And what would be the result if
    it were revised? If she believes that it is a deliberately
    false estimate, made to get approval of continued operation,
    she is up against a potentially more difficult situation.
    Whichever it is, there is also the question of the danger in
    case of an accident resulting in the loss of one heat
    exchanger. Alison thinks that this should be considered in the
    report. In such an event, would the result probably be
    catastrophic, or merely require quicker action to shut down

    Sometimes regulations are excessive. Does she believe that
    the regulations are excessively cautious or does she think that
    they are appropriate? If Alison personally believes that they
    are excessive, does that make a difference? If Alison thinks
    that there is a real danger, she has more obligation to express
    her reservations than if she thinks that the Single Failure
    Criteria are excessive, doesn't she? Or is her personal
    judgment irrelevant? Think about it from another point of view.
    Would you want the members of the Plant Nuclear Safety Review
    Committee using their personal judgment about the importance of
    the safety regulations in situations like this, or should they
    conform to the letter of the regulations?

    In this case, the requirement that the plant anticipate loss
    of one heat exchanger in the event of a possible accident is
    being overlooked, rather than being violated, in the JCO. Is it
    up to the NRC to notice that? Or is it the responsibility of
    the plant to meet the requirement? If I am applying for a job
    and I leave blank some of the questions when answers would call
    attention to my weaknesses, isn't it up to the employer to
    decide whether to ask for further information? Is there any
    analogy between these two situations?

    Alison is the least senior member of the committee, but she
    is still a member. If she is unable or unwilling to voice her
    opinion, she might as well not be there. Voicing a reservation
    is doing no more than expressing a professional judgment. But
    it is at the same time challenging the work of those who
    prepared the JCO and challenging the judgment of her superiors
    who see nothing wrong with it. That may take courage.

    What if Allison thinks that the 95% capacity is a
    deliberately false assumption, made up to have a satisfactory
    JCO and avoid shutdown? Does that make any difference? In that
    case she would seem to have an additional responsibility to
    speak up, since in that case her superiors do think that there
    is something wrong with the JCO and are not saying so. But that
    may take even more courage, since she is not just raising a
    technical question but, at least in her own mind, questioning
    their integrity.

    If the problem is sand blockage on the lake water side, is
    that something that will be remedied while the plant is
    operating, and will it be remedied if the JCO is approved? Or
    is the sand blockage something that is going to get worse and
    make the heat exchangers less effective as time goes by? If so,
    will the plant become progressively unsafe, or will the problem
    eventually require shutdown to remedy it? If so, wouldn't it be
    better to do it sooner, rather than later?


    Not much has changed as a result of the discussion after
    Alison expressed her reservations. One member of the committee
    supported her concern and pointed out that it would take only
    three hours to carry out the calculations. That this trouble
    wasn't taken might make her even more suspicious that there is
    a deliberate effort to submit a misleading JCO. If so, she
    would have even stronger reason to cast a dissenting vote, for
    she would feel that there was more than just a matter of
    technical differences of opinion. On the other hand, she may
    have been persuaded by the argument that other plants are
    operating without containment spray systems; therefore it is an
    unnecessary extra precaution. She could even believe both--that
    there is only a very remote risk of its ever being needed and
    of its being unnecessary if it is, but also that management is
    deliberately ignoring the problem.


    She might have been right to have expressed and voted her
    reservations, even if they turned out to have been unwarranted.
    She showed honesty and integrity. But she may have also
    adversely affected her career. Not to have unanimity on
    approval of a JCO is probably not appreciated by the company.
    It does not look good. To challenge the judgment of her
    superiors may not make her a welcome member of the team, and
    the fact that her concerns were unwarranted could be used
    against her. Is that something that she should have worried
    about when voting?

    On the other hand, expressing and voting her honest opinion
    may be regarded as a virtue by her superiors. Which do you
    think is more likely? If you were the superior, which kind of
    subordinate would you want? If you were an owner of a company
    or the public affected by decisions, which kind of superior
    would you want?

    In all of this, does it make any difference that Judy is
    female? Is it more difficult for her to express her judgment
    because of her gender?

  • Posted 12 years and 10 months ago

    Alison Turner is concerned about the safety assumptions
    being made in her work place. This is an important question,
    but it takes on even more significance in Alison's work
    place--a nuclear power plant. This case revolves around two
    important ethical issues: (1) How can a group make the best
    decision about safety?; and (2) What is an ethical employee's
    responsibility in terms of expressing his or her opinion?

    In terms of its safety decisions, it seems that the company
    who runs this nuclear power plant has asked the committee
    Alison is part of (the PNSRC--Plant Nuclear Safety Review
    Committee) to wear two different and potentially conflicting
    hats. In a famous example from the discussion that occurred
    before the Challenger explosion several years ago, a manager at
    Morton Thiokol asked an engineer who had opposed the launch to
    "take off his engineering hat" and put on his "management hat."
    When he responded to the question as a manager, he recommended
    launching the space shuttle under the conditions specified.
    This example illustrates that the decision recommended by an
    engineer may not be the same as the decision recommended by a
    manager. Asking people on one committee to play both roles may
    lead to disastrous results.

    One reason for the potential danger in this situation is a
    phenomenon called "groupthink," discussed by Irving Janis in
    his book, Groupthink (Houghton Mifflin, 1982). In situations of
    groupthink, members of a group don't want to "rock the boat."
    They agree to a consensus to support the group even though
    individuals may disagree with the decision. Rich Robinson, the
    chair of the committee, has made it clear that it is important
    to act quickly to avoid a costly shutdown. He has set the tone
    for the meeting and set the stage for groupthink. It seems as
    if he has a decision made before the group even discusses
    anything. When someone suggests that additional calculations
    could easily be made, one person reminds another not to rock
    the boat by saying, "Our track record is excellent, and the
    system is optional. It's not as though we're taking any
    extraordinary risks." The group never has a chance to
    critically examine the situation.

    When the vote is being cast, Alison must decide her
    responsibility to express her doubts about the decision.
    According to Albert Hirschman in the book, Exit, Voice and
    Loyalty (Harvard University Press, 1970), employees have three
    options in situations such as this one: exit, voice, or
    loyalty. In other words, they may decide that the problem is
    significant enough that they are forced to quit their jobs and
    leave the corporation (exit). They may speak to their
    supervisors or anyone else who might be involved and try to
    convince them of their concerns (voice). Or they may remain
    loyal to the company and do nothing believing that the company
    knows best and the problem will be solved in due time. If
    Alison decided to use the voice option in this situation, she
    would cast a negative vote. In this way, she would be
    communicating her dissatisfaction with the committee's
    decision. Of course, she could abstain (in essence, the exit
    option) or vote for the decision (loyalty). Each decision is
    significant and each carries its own risks. If she casts a
    negative vote, she remain true to her doubts but has the
    potential not to be seen as a team player. Her future
    promotions could be affected. If she abstains, she walks a
    middle ground--she expresses some dissatisfaction, but may
    still be seen as a reluctant member of the team. If she casts a
    positive vote, she goes along with the group, remains part of
    the team, but her voice has been lost.

    To avoid putting any individual in this difficult position,
    this group could have used a more systematic method of
    assessing the risk involved in the important decisions they are
    asked to make. For example, in their book, Acceptable Risk
    (Cambridge University Press, 1981), Fischhoff and his
    colleagues present seven objectives that they believe a method
    for assessing risk should meet: comprehensive, logically sound,
    practical, open to evaluation, politically acceptable,
    compatible with institutions, and conducive to learning. They
    note that not all methods meet these criteria, but any method
    can be examined in light of the criteria. The PNSRC might have
    avoided groupthink if they had made an attempt to examine their
    decision-making procedure more systematically. Of course, these
    criteria do not assure that any decision is sound, but they are
    one more way of checking to make sure that all areas have been
    explored before a group chooses a solution to an important

    Decision making about risk is a difficult thing to do. It is
    even more difficult when it is done by a committee that has to
    consider the implications of the decision for a number of
    different constituencies. Nevertheless, this area of decision
    making is extremely important. The committee must be structured
    so that each employee has a voice and can act as ethically as
    possible within the parameters of the decision to be made.

  • Posted 12 years and 10 months ago


    Alison should express her reservations. If Single Failure
    Criteria require that one assume the loss of one heat
    exchanger, and if the Criteria themselves are required--that
    is, if one is required to make sure that they are
    satisfied--then the failure to determine what would happen if
    there were only one heat exchanger means that the plant has
    failed to do what it is required to do. It makes a difference,
    or course, who is requiring that the Single Failure Criteria be
    satisfied. If it is the NRC, and it is reasonable to assume
    that it is, then the Plant Nuclear Safety Review Committee is
    failing to fulfil one of its obligations in submitting its
    Justification for Continued Operation to NRC.

    Perhaps NRC will see the failure and send the JCO back for
    the additional information that NRC requires. But there is no
    guarantee of that. In a complex document, it is easy enough to
    miss something, even if required. So Alison cannot assume that
    NRC will catch the Committee's not determining what will happen
    if one heat exchanger fails.

    Even if she could assume that, she has an obligation as a
    member of the Committee to make sure that the Committee's
    reports reflect whatever is required. By not expressing her
    reservations when, by the nature of Rich's comments, it looks
    as though a vote will be called, she is effectively agreeing to
    sign off on what she takes to be a flawed document. She has a
    professional obligation not to do that.

    That, as it appears, others may not agree with her is not
    relevant. An analogy may make this point clearer. The Supreme
    Court consists of nine justices. It hears cases, and the
    justices meet together to determine what the Court ought to
    decide. It is rare that the justices all agree. Unanimity is
    the exception, not the norm. The justice chosen to write the
    opinion for the majority is required to circulate his or her
    draft opinion to all members of the Court, and justices send
    back comments, suggesting changes, including additional
    arguments, problems with existing arguments or positions, and
    so on. The vote, in short, initiates a dialogue among the
    justices. Sometimes that dialogue changes the votes of some of
    the justices. As they see a decision argued out, they may
    become convinced that their original judgment was mistaken. It
    is the job of each person to give their views as strongly and
    clearly as possible. Only in that way, it is assumed, can the
    best decision be reached--the one most likely to withstand
    further criticism.

    The Plant Nuclear Safety Review Committee and, indeed, any
    official committee of professionals ought to work in the same
    way. Such a procedure presumes, as a working hypothesis, the
    respect of each member of the committee for the others, but
    that respect is both created and maintained by the quality of
    judgment of the person being respected--a quality of judgment
    measured by how good the reasons are a person gives, how
    nuanced to the evidence, how carefully considered in light of
    objections, and so on.

    So if Alison now expresses her reservations, she is
    immediately calling upon the presumptions about how such a
    committee ought to operate that make such expressions
    reasonable and accepted. She is calling upon the other members
    of the committee to explain why they think such a contingency
    as the loss of one heat exchanger need not be examined, and she
    is herself required to explain why it is that she thinks it
    ought to be examined.

    Lying behind such presumptions about how such a committee
    ought to operate is the further, and deeper, presumption that
    it is only in such a committee, operating with such respect of
    the members, one for another, that one can be more sure of
    coming to a conclusion that will withstand objections than not.
    There is no guarantee that the conclusion reached will not be
    mistaken: it is possible that all the members be wrong in one
    respect or another. But if each member feels entitled and,
    better, obligated to raise what objections seems appropriate,
    and if the committee as a whole is obligated to come to grips
    with the objections, treat them with respect, and respond to
    them in a reasonable way, then the end result will be better
    decisions--one more likely to withstand objection.

    Alison thus has an obligation to express her reservations,
    and it is a complex obligation--to the nature of the
    decision-making process and to her fellow committee members.
    She is, after all, obligated by a commitment to the
    decision-making process not to allow her fellow committee
    members to embarrass themselves by making a bad decision.


    Alison should vote not to approve the JCO without the
    Nuclear Safety and Licensing Department making the further
    calculation, and she should make it clear the reasons she is
    voting not to approve the JCO--that the Criteria require such a
    calculation, that it is inappropriate to send the JCO onto the
    NRC without satisfying the Criteria it requires, and that it
    will take little work, and waste virtually no time, to do what
    is required.

    She may get a bit of flack for voting that way, but not
    much, and that is not to the point in any case. If her case is
    reasonable, then the other members of the committee can hardly
    complain at her unwillingness to do what she thinks is a

    Of course, one of the problems with what she has done is
    that she has failed to give arguments for her position given
    what has been said. On the one hand, she needs to second the
    observation Mark Reynolds makes. Joe objects, "What's the
    point?," and the proper response is that the point is that the
    Criteria require that the contingency be considered and that,
    to push Mark's point home, the necessary information can be
    gained quickly and without a great deal of trouble. So, Alison
    can and should say, she is not asking for much and is asking
    only for what is required.

    But, on the other hand, she needs to respond to the points
    Louks and Carpello bring up. If having heat exchangers is not
    itself required, then why is it necessary to test to see what
    happens if one is lost? It is not to the point to argue, as
    they do, that so far the plant has been accident-free. One may
    cross the street all one's life without being run over and
    without looking both ways, but one's luck does not mean that it
    is right or all right not to look both ways. Requirements are
    there to make sure that one do what needs to be done to prevent
    accidents. It does not follow that if one has not had any
    accidents, that one need not do what is required. One may not
    have had any accidents because one has done what is required.
    But the thrust of the objection Louks and Carpello make is that
    since the heat exchangers are an extra safety device in any
    event, not required, it makes no sense to follow the Criteria
    and see what happens if one of them fails. Many plants have
    neither, and they have had no problems.

    To make her point, Alison needs to argue something like
    this: heat exchangers are not required, but when they do exist,
    then the Criteria require that one determine what happens when
    one fails. It is not unusual to have a situation where one has
    something extra and then is required, because one has something
    extra, to make sure it works properly. If car seats for babies
    were not required by law, but one had one, it would not be
    inappropriate for a legislature to require that one check to be
    sure that it works properly. The baby might be no worse off in
    a car seat that did not stay in place in an accident than if he
    or she were in an accident without a car seat at all, but since
    the parent has provided one, the legislature may require that
    it work properly. Reduced insurance premiums might depend upon
    the seat working properly, or the legislature might want to be
    sure that the person who bought it has peace of mind
    appropriately, and not because of the mistaken assumption that
    the car seat will protect the child. Just so, NRC may not
    require heat exchangers, but may require, if a plant has them,
    that they do the job even if one is down. Nothing in the case
    tells us anything about that one way or the other, but that is
    a failure on the part of Alison. She has failed to pursue the
    dialogue, failed to provide the reasons she needs to provide,
    to make her position sustainable--and help her colleagues keep
    from making a mistake.


    If subsequent calculations show that a single heat exchanger
    would be adequate, that would not make it wrong for Alison to
    have cast a negative vote. She is not doing that to prevent the
    report from going on to NRC, but to make sure that the
    committee do what is required--assuming that the Criteria are
    themselves required by NRC--and that the committee work in the
    appropriate way in coming to its decisions. That is, she has an
    obligation to present her views, however different they may be
    from the views of other members of the committee, and an
    obligation to make sure that the views of others are
    appropriately reasoned. She is casting a negative vote in part,
    presumably, because she does not think the position of the
    committee that the contingency in question need not be examined
    is a viable position. That she turns out to be wrong does not
    mean that the committee's position is right. After all, they
    could not have known when they voted that one heat exchanger
    would be enough. And, more important, that she turns out to be
    wrong does not mean that the committee's deliberations were
    appropriate: the committee failed to come to grips with her
    objection that the Criteria require determining what happens in
    such a contingency (assuming that is the thrust of her argument
    or, what is the same, that she has an acceptable response to
    the objection of Louks and Carpello).

    She may well set a precedent for proceeding without
    unanimity, but the hope must be that she will begin to initiate
    the sort of dialogue that ought to mark such deliberative

  • Posted 12 years and 10 months ago

    It would seem that Alison Turner and her fellow committee
    members on the PNSRC do not yet have all of the information
    available to enable them to make a carefully considered
    judgement. But even before considering analysis of a single
    heat exchanger failure, as in part II, she has some
    professional obligations to consider. If Alison does not
    express her reservations in part I of this case, it is likely
    that the Justification for Continued Operation (JCO) will be
    forwarded onto the Nuclear Regularly Commission (NRC) for
    approval with no mention of the contingency check on the loss
    of one of the two heat exchangers under the required Single
    Failure Criteria.

    It is not unreasonable to expect that the people who serve
    on the NRC have sufficient experience and expertise to turn
    down the JCO from the PNSRC just on the basis of the omission
    of this Single Failure Criteria assessment of the effect of
    losing one heat exchanger. Alison can make this point following
    the moment of silence on the initial vote in part I. She can
    try to convince her fellow PNSRC members that it is in their
    and their company's best interest to maintain the confidence of
    the NRC.

    Most important she can try to convince her fellow PNSRC
    members about their responsibility to check all contingencies
    in order to hold paramount public safety according to all
    professional society codes of ethics. This is particularly
    sensitive given the nature of what is potentially at risk in
    this case.

    In part II of the case it emerges that the Nuclear Safety
    and Licensing Department would only require 3 hours to perform
    the necessary calculations for the Single Failure Criteria
    issue of the effects of a possible loss of one heat exchanger.
    At this point in the discussion it appears that Mark Reynolds
    on the PNSRC is leaning towards supporting Alison's concerns.
    The fact that the containment spray heat exchanger is optional
    and the company track record is excellent, as Joe Carpello
    points out, is really not relevant to the question at hand,
    namely the responsibility of the PSNRC to consider all possible
    consequences of their actions. The fact that this is an
    accident mitigation system and there never has been an accident
    in the plant, as pointed out by Brad Louks, is also not
    relevant to the basic responsibilities the PNSRC faces.

    Joe Carpello's statement that nothing is ever totally risk
    free is exactly right. But his point that their company has
    always been a leader in safety, so "...Let's not get carried
    away with 'possibilities'" seems precisely wrong just because
    nothing is ever totally risk free. It is exactly by letting
    oneself get deeply immersed in all failure mode possibilities
    that one maintains a position of leadership in safety.

    Given that it is only 1:30 p.m. in the afternoon when this
    discussion takes place, and that the calculations for the
    missing Single Failure Criteria assessment would only take
    another 3 hours, it would seem that Alison and Mark could
    reasonably call for a tabling of the PNSRC vote until 4:30 that

    In part III of the case, it is hypothesized that subsequent
    calculations have shown that Alison's concerns were unfounded.
    Does that make it wrong for her to have requested a delay on
    the PNSRC vote? Just the fact that the substantiating
    subsequent analysis can now be included in the JCO to be
    forwarded to the NRC would seem to justify the delay.

    The issue of setting a precedent of proceeding without
    unanimity on the PNSRC does not really seem to be an issue.
    Undoubtedly, once the Single Failure Criterion analysis is
    available, Alison will for sure be willing to join the majority
    to make the final recorded vote unanimous. But even without
    such a vote change, in something as critical as reviews like
    this one coming before the NRC, non-unanimity of a PNSRC vote
    may achieve the important function of requiring the NRC to look
    at any situation more carefully than it might otherwise have

    The early days of the NRC actions are replete with some
    misguided risk assessment analyses that did not properly alert
    us to the kind of problems that arose at Three Mile Island. The
    interested reader is referred to the literature regarding the
    famous Report to the NRC headed by Professor Rasmussen of MIT
    (the so called WASH-1400 Report). There are also a number of
    informative reports and TV tapes on Three Mile Island that are
    relevant to some of the issues in this case.

  • Posted 12 years and 10 months ago


    Alison is the junior member of the PNSCR, which has the
    responsibility of making a recommendation concerning continuing
    operation of a heat exchanger which is not functioning to
    standards. Nuclear Safety and Licensing has submitted an
    analysis justifying continued operation (JCO), but Alison has
    reservations about an assumption made by NSL; if the assumption
    is wrong, problems could occur, and NSL has not discussed that
    contingency. Should Alison express her reservations? The other
    members of PNSCR want to approve the JCO, and there is pressure
    that the recommendation be unanimous.

    Alison should keep firmly in mind that as a professional
    engineer, her job is to provide her best professional judgment
    when called on to do so; she is not on the payroll in order to
    endorse decisions made by others. She finds herself in a tense
    political situation, where management looks for the 'correct'
    recommendation. But if she feels she has valid reservations
    about the JCO, which she can't express for political reasons,
    she would be subverting her function on the PNSRC. In effect,
    it is being suggested to Alison that her professional judgment
    isn't needed in this situation, which ought to raise the
    question in everybody's mind, why is she there? If she's not
    free to speak as her judgment dictates, she has no role on the
    PNSCR and ought to ask to be replaced on it.

    Chair Robinson's comments about the cost to the company of
    not approving the JCO are entirely inappropriate and put the
    PNSCR under pressure. Perhaps the parameters of the PNSCR's
    mandate are not clear; are they supposed to make engineering
    judgments, or management judgments? It is up to management, it
    would seem, to consider the costs of delay in deciding whether
    to accept or reject PNSRC recommendations. Evidently the PNSRC
    in this company functions in part to cover management's
    decisions; by providing input management wants to hear, they
    relieve management of the necessity of making business
    decisions balancing cost versus safety. This attitude is
    reflected in the comment of Chair Robinson.


    Alison expresses her reservations, and there is discussion.
    However her recommendation for further study is steamrolled by
    the committee. Should she vote against the approval, since the
    calculations she requested haven't been made? It is unclear
    what the hurry is here; if a committee member has reservations
    which could be clarified by a three hour study, why not make
    the study? Evidently most of the other committee members think
    Alison's reservations simply aren't important enough to bother
    with, which is certainly their prerogative. On the other hand,
    she has a different opinion, and as a competent professional
    she is entitled to hear some reason why the study is a waste of
    time. Evidently Mark Reynolds sees the point of Alison's
    concern, but his support is brushed aside, leaving the
    impression that the committee does not really like to hear
    disagreement among its members. The case does not present any
    serious discussion on the PNSCR about the contingency which
    worries Alison; her concern is brushed off with vague
    invocations of the company's excellent safety record (which
    this discussion on the PNSRC may be putting in jeopardy!).

    Of course Alison could be wrong; perhaps she is
    inexperienced, and just doesn't realize that what she's worried
    about is the remote possibility of the failure of a redundant
    system ("lots of plants don't even have containment spray
    systems"), which shouldn't be taken seriously. Maybe she's a
    bit over her head on this committee! If so, she might be wise
    to listen and learn until she gets more experience. On the
    other hand, it is also possible that she lends a critical point
    of view which the committee evidently lacks. Her attitude of
    refusal to go along with the rest could save the committee from
    embarrassment some day. There is an air of self-confidence
    about the other members which could prove dangerous. Given that
    her recommendation has been rejected without serious
    discussion, she ought to vote No. Perhaps she's not entitled
    that the study be done, but she is entitled to a reasoned
    discussion and plausible arguments why the study shouldn't be

    It is not stated why it is important that PNSRC decisions be
    unanimous. Perhaps the vaunted unanimity of past decisions is a
    consequence of political pressure and not engineering
    consensus? If previous unanimous recommendations have been the
    legitimate result of engineering judgments, then no precedent
    is created, because such unanimity does not exist in the
    current situation. On the other hand, if previous unanimity has
    been produced by pressure such as is being exerted on Alison,
    then the tradition of unanimity is hollow and ought not to be
    taken as a precedent. What is being decided by the PNSRC is how
    far one has to go in the interests of safety. This is a matter
    of judgment. In general, reasonable people can disagree about
    this question. In this case, the system is optional, failure is
    evidently considered remote (only a "possibility," a word which
    in context implies, "very unlikely") and there are said to be
    no "extraordinary" risks involved even if the exchanger does
    fail. Nonetheless it is surprising that all PNSRC decisions
    have been unanimous. If I were management, I would suspect a
    unanimous PNSRC as too good to be true; such unanimity would
    strike me as more than a little bit 'concocted'. However
    management isn't interested in such suspicions because
    unanimity makes management's job easier.


    Therefore, I conclude that no matter what the ultimate
    outcome, Alison would be more at fault for taking the easy way
    out and going along with the majority, than for voting No. In
    any case, however, she ought to have a chat with other members
    of the committee and express disappointment that her judgment
    was not respectfully considered, and point out that the
    tendency of the chair to pressure engineering judgments is not
    in anybody's best interest. Unless she exerts herself and
    defends her professional competence and prerogatives, she is
    going to find herself more and more ignored and will come to be
    regarded as a fifth wheel on the wagon.

  • Posted 12 years and 10 months ago

    Cases such as this resist a simple answer
    because those involved (in the present case, Alison) must deal
    with several fundamentally different kinds of considerations in
    making their judgement. It is useful to explicitly distinguish
    these, because the resolution of each requires different kinds
    of reasoning. However, once distinguished, each is much easier
    to discuss and resolve than was the original problem. Here are
    the kinds of considerations:

    1. (Facts) What are the relevant facts of the situation?
      Even here there is room for judgment and argument, as to
      which facts are or are not relevant or problematic with
      respect to safety.

    2. (Regulations) Given 1., what government regulations apply
      to the situation? This also may require judgment, since for
      example 'borderline' data may require an expert decision on
      whether or not a regulation is significantly infringed by the

    3. (Duties) The PNSRC safety committee: what is its
      structure and organization, and what regulations must it
      itself conform to? Consequently, what are the duties of
      individual committee members such as Alison?

    4. (Pressures) What political pressures are operative on the
      committee members? Do they both individually and collectively
      have the courage, authority and power to ignore these
      pressures and do the right thing anyway?

    Let's start with the easiest part, the Duties. Who would
    disagree that the committee and its members have a duty to
    raise and satisfactorily resolve any and all safety issues that
    come up? What is more, all members of the committee, no matter
    how junior, have a duty to raise any safety issues they
    personally are aware of, and a duty to ensure that the
    committee resolves those issues. Failing this, they have a duty
    to record a dissenting opinion or vote if the matter has not
    (in their view) been properly resolved by the committee.

    Surely none of this is controversial at all, since this is
    precisely what safety committees and the experts who sit on
    them are supposed to do. Hence if we have any doubt about
    whether Alison should express her reservations or cast a
    negative vote, it must be for other reasons. (One might quibble
    about whether Alison should raise further specific objections
    at the meeting before committing herself to a negative vote,
    but that is a mere tactical consideration having no
    implications for her duties.)

    Now to the Pressures. Alison might well feel 'pressured' to
    keep quiet and not officially record her dissent, given the
    blatantly political and self-serving comments of others on the
    committee. She could also fear being a lone dissenter, or fear
    that her career may be compromised if she is perceived as a
    'troublemaker' or an obstructionist. But here again, who would
    deny that she ought to resist such pressures? This, and any
    other kind of political pressure, clearly ought to be fought in
    every way possible by the committee and its members.

    Since neither Duties nor Pressures provide any reasons for
    Alison to hold back her concerns, we areleft with broadly
    scientific and factual issues (the Facts and Regulations
    mentioned under 1. and 2. above) as the arena for any remaining
    concerns about what she should do. From the facts presented,
    and regulations outlined or which can be assumed, an unexpected
    picture emerges.

    Though Alison's concerns seem legitimate, from the initial
    information we are given it seems there are much more pressing
    reasons for safety concerns. A heat exchanger shows degraded
    coolant flow and high differential pressure even after two
    months of repairs, and tests show the other exchanger in the
    same generating unit has the same problems. Not only that, but
    the other generating unit also has problems with its heat
    exchangers. It seems quite likely that we have the makings of a
    disaster here, whether or not a generating unit could normally
    function with the loss of one heat exchanger (the specific
    point of Alison's concern). All of these facts should be
    reported to the NRC.

    We are also told that the cooling water flow is slightly
    below the minimum requirement for the whole plant. Quite
    simply, this means that the NRC must be informed that the plant
    is in violation of this basic requirement, and NRC's duty is to
    immediately shut down the plant. A minimum standard is just
    that, i.e., a minimum level below which performance is
    absolutely unacceptable. (Even performance above but near to
    the minimum would be reason for serious safety investigations.)
    Why did no one on the committee raise this issue?

    This case indirectly provides a good illustration of why the
    U.S nuclear power industry is held in such low esteem by its
    public. Sadly, engineers and scientists have failed to
    expeditiously seek out and correct many fundamental safety
    problems connected with nuclear power, and NRC regulation has
    been lax or non-existent. With engineers being more concerned
    with 'not rocking the boat' than with being activists for safer
    plants, regulatory committees have become largely
    'rubber-stamps' for company policy. The comments of committee
    members as reported in this case, along with Alison's doubts as
    to whether she should do what it is plainly her duty to do,
    well illustrate these problems.

  • Posted 12 years and 10 months ago

    Alison Turner is experiencing a moral crisis partly because
    of an unhealthy group leadership situation. In order for group
    problem solving to be successful, a style of discussion
    leadership must be developed to maximize the group's assets and
    minimize its liabilities (Ritchie and Thompson 1980).

    The Plant Nuclear Safety Review Committee includes more than
    one individual because a group has access to more knowledge and
    experience than an individual has. Also, a group can generate
    more alternatives to solving a problem, and can explore a
    problem from a greater number of perspectives than an
    individual can. Such assets are particularly valuable when the
    group is charged with safety oversight responsibilities for
    critical facilities. These aspects of group problem solving can
    only be realized, however, when the group leader understands
    and facilitates effective group dynamics. Each individual must
    be encouraged to voice concerns, including contingencies that
    have not been considered by other group members. Each
    individual must feel valued by the group. This is the goal of
    leadership ethics (Maier 1980).

    Rich Robinson, chair of the committee, is not exercising
    effective leadership. He is dominating the discussion, and with
    the help of two other strong personalities, Brad Louks and Joe
    Carpello, he is quickly leading the group toward a preconceived
    decision. Alison Turner, along with others, is hesitant to
    accept this decision, but no one speaks. Alison is especially
    uncomfortable because she is the least senior member present at
    the meeting.

    Group decisions, especially unanimous group decisions, are
    generally given more weight than decisions made by individuals.
    However, this case illustrates that group decisions may, in
    fact, represent the viewpoint of a single member of the group
    or the judgment of a minority of dominant individuals.

    Unless all individuals in the group are comfortable in
    contributing to a consensus, the value of the group is
    questionable. The decisions may as well be made by an
    individual, or by a computer using expert systems technology.
    People, not computers, have been trusted with the oversight
    assignment in this case, and the reason is that
    experience-based judgments are needed.

    The experience brought to a problem by senior members of a
    group is valuable. However, sometimes seniority works to
    disadvantage. The less-senior members may feel uncomfortable
    challenging their superiors. But the less-senior members are
    often able to bring fresh insights and new experiences to the
    problem. Senior members may be inclined toward misguided
    loyalties and may become complacent and defensive. These
    attributes can be seen in some of the comments by Brad Louks
    and Joe Carpello: "...we've always been leaders in safety,"
    and, "Our track record is excellent..." When contingencies are
    being ignored, these attitudes need to be challenged. The
    less-senior members of the group can be very effective in
    energizing a complacent group if the leadership is healthy.

    This committee has a precedence of always arriving at a
    unanimous decision. The account given here causes one to
    question the wisdom of honoring such a tradition. If a
    unanimous decision represents a consensus agreed to willingly
    by all members of the group, then the unanimity may be an
    indication of the quality of the decision. However, in this
    case, it appears that a unanimous decision may be the result of
    social pressure. Social pressure within a group can stifle
    disagreement. Uncomfortable parties remain silent and conform
    to the wishes of dominant individuals (Maier 1980).

    Alison and at least one other member, Mark Reynolds, are not
    comfortable with the direction the group is taking. Public
    welfare may be at stake, and one hopes that these individuals
    will decide to place the public interest above their own
    personal comfort. This is the hallmark of professionalism.
    Sometimes things do go wrong in spite of low probability, and
    concern for this contingency is what separates the true
    professional from the "uninvolved" technician. The engineering
    Code of Ethics requires members of the profession to "...hold
    paramount the health, safety and welfare of the public" (Pletta
    1987, Rubin and Banick 1987).

    Since Alison still has reservations, she should not vote to
    approve the Justification for Continued Operation. The
    committee will be forced to either address her concerns, or to
    depart from the precedence of unanimity. It should be noted
    that there is some merit to abandoning the practice of forced
    unanimity. Dissenting viewpoints based on rational arguments
    are useful, especially when something goes wrong. The
    dissenting comments assist in the re-evaluation of decision
    processes. Even the Supreme Court does not insist on unanimous
    decisions; a lack of complete consensus is a valid reflection
    of the uncertainties present in judgment decisions.

    The safety of the Nuclear Power industry relies on the
    diligence of many professionals who worry about contingencies.
    Redundancy of critical components and systems is a key factor
    in ensuring public safety. The "Single Failure Criteria" that
    Alison is exploring is fundamental to the concept of
    Redundancy. She is not "...getting (unnecessarily) carried away
    with possibilities," as Joe Carpello suggests. She is
    exercising her professional responsibilities as a trusted
    member of an oversight group. She is merely concerned that all
    reasonably foreseeable contingencies be investigated.

    When things go wrong, there is always a technical
    explanation for the failure. But there is also inevitably a
    procedural problem, involving human deficiencies (Carper 1989).
    Often the procedural problem relates to a flawed decision
    process and complacency regarding contingency plans. Mark
    Reynold's suggestion that the concerns expressed by Alison be
    referred back to the Mechanical Engineering group makes a lot
    of sense. This act would not entail a great time delay. It will
    impress the Mechanical Engineering group with the need to
    investigate all contingencies when future problems arise. And,
    even if the problem turns out to be less critical than it now
    appears to Alison, the committee decision will truly be a
    willing consensus. The more comprehensive review will be viewed
    favorably by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the NRC
    will likely place more credibility in future recommendations
    from the committee.

    One final concern deserves comment. The current report
    implies that the cooling system is operating at or below the
    limit of acceptable standards. The problem appears to be sand
    blockage involving all four heat exchangers. If nothing is done
    to remedy the situation, is it not likely to deteriorate
    further? Yet, the dominant individuals in this group are
    committed to getting on with business as usual. Robinson says,
    "If we don't approve this, we may be facing a multi-million
    dollar proposition."

    Obviously, the time will come when a sizable expenditure
    will be required, unless further compromises to public safety
    are entertained. If Alison retains her commitment to
    professionalism, and we hope she does, it will be even more
    difficult to speak up next time. In the future, she may find it
    necessary to take her concerns outside the company. At present,
    however, the best option is to insist on voicing her
    convictions within the organization (Martin and Schinzinger
    1989). There may be others, like Mark Reynolds, who will follow
    her example and improve the quality of interaction in this

    Suggested Readings:

    1. Carper, Kenneth L., ed. 1989. Forensic Engineering,
      Elsevier Science Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 14-31.

    2. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in
      Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY,
      pp. 213-224.

    3. Maier, Norman R. F. 1980. "Assets and Liabilities in
      Group Problem Solving: The Need for an Integrative Function,"
      in Organization and People, by J. B. Ritchie and P. Thompson,
      West Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota, pp.

    4. Pletta, Dan H. 1987. " 'Uninvolved' Professionals and
      Technical Disasters," Journal of Professional Issues in
      Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York,
      NY, Vol. 113, No. 1, January, pp. 23-31.

    5. Ritchie, J. B. and P. Thompson 1980. Organization and
      People (2nd edition), West Publishing Company, St. Paul,
      Minnesota, pp. 155-244.

    6. Rubin, Robert A. and Lisa A. Banick 1987. "The Hyatt
      Regency Decision: One View," Journal of Performance of
      Constructed Facilities, American Society of Civil Engineers,
      New York, NY, Vol. 1, No. 3, August, pp. 161-167.

Cite this page: "Dissent about Nuclear Safety" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Wednesday, June 19, 2019 <>