Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Distrust and the Nuclear Doctrine

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Distrust and the Nuclear Doctrine

Article excerpt


   Can one man derail a train with nothing but his will? Can a few
   thousand human beings armed with nothing but audacity and purpose
   bring to a halt the mighty freight train of government, industry,
   power, war, that overwhelming vision of a future charged by pride
   and ambition. (1)

Nearly 50 years ago, C. Wright Mills (2) wrote about our inabilities to orient ourselves as part individual and part society. He recognized the effects of trying to reconcile the experience many have of feeling trapped between their own life and what goes on in the rest of the world. Mills prescribed development of 'the sociological imagination' to deal with the continual and seemingly uncontrolled change within society. With this concept, Mills challenged our failing intellect, not on our achievements, but rather on the ability to grasp the magnitude of our accomplishments and assimilate their meaning into everyday life. Advancements in science and technology compound the need for the sociological imagination Mills recommended.

A year after Mills' academic exploration into the sociological mind, C. P. Snow (3) compellingly argued to the American Association for the Advancement of Science that for some scientific activities we must pay a moral price. Snow made the case that scientists involved in research and discoveries that fundamentally influence and transform the world have more responsibility than non-scientist citizens--they "have a moral imperative to say what they know," (4) good or bad, precisely because that knowledge has the power to change the world.

With few exceptions, when scientists have told us what they know over the last few centuries at least, it has become increasingly mathematical, often in equations symbolizing a host of other specialized information needed to derive the current matter at hand. (5) Not coincidentally, during the same period we have relied on mathematical models as a way to explain the world, societies have industrialized and technological complexity has become exponential. Snow's principle applies across fields of inquiry, but at the time poignantly focused on physicists, the discovery of atomic fission, and the societal implications that followed since. These phenomena contribute to what Erikson labeled a "new species of trouble" (6) and Beck termed "risk society." (7)

Using the case of what I will call the nuclear doctrine, this article expounds on some of the contemporary problems of governing the technological risk we have created. By the term nuclear doctrine, I refer to a set of political, social, and cultural conditions combining several factors. Each of the factors in some form reveals a part to the story that has become our historical legacy and context as well as actions of today and tomorrow related to nuclear technology. The factors are as follows: 1) the transformational science that lead to atomic discoveries in the twentieth century; 2) the tension over nuclear technology development as a military vs. civilian domain; 3) the contemporary re-emergence of the nuclear power industry in a context of global climate change and energy crises facing the governments of tomorrow.

In short, I ask what the appropriate role of government ought to be in the management and regulation of technological risk such as nuclear technology? The core thesis of this article highlights an ongoing political doctrine to support nuclear technologies in the United States. In contrast, many social and cultural indicators do not align to that ongoing nuclear doctrine. Thus, a crisis of trust in government to even greater degrees lies ahead within the pursuit of nuclear technologies. Living with the nuclear doctrine, individuals in modern society face a paradoxical future: while we expect, demand, and now rely on the utility and benefits from the complex technological systems we have created, we simultaneously resist, fear, and challenge their associated risks. …

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