Sunday, June 16, 2013
One Accident, Three Headlines
There are probably as many reasons that people choose a career in engineering as there are engineers. But one reason that may be pretty common was voiced by a graduate student of mine many years ago. When he entered college, he thought at first about becoming a philosophy major. But when he discovered that, like lawyers, philosophers prided themselves in being able to defend either side of any argument, he felt that he needed to find a field where objectivity was paramount and subjective opinions had to defer to facts. So he chose engineering.
My student was on to something. Modern science-based engineering does start from universally-recognized facts about the physical world. But if you go into engineering with the hope that technical matters are all that matter and personal subjective beliefs and feelings are irrelevant, you will be in for a surprise. A good example of this came about last spring in news reports of an incident at the Arkansas Nuclear One plant in Russellville, Ark., about seventy miles northwest of Little Rock, on Easter Sunday, March 31 of this year. What was meant to be a taxing but routine industrial maintenance operation turned into a fatal accident. But the same facts were construed at least three different ways by different news outlets.
The first report I’ll consider is from the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s official website, http://public-blog.nrc-gateway.gov. This blog is clearly intended to be the NRC’s public face. Their headline on the incident reads, “Easter Sunday and Arkansas Nuclear One.” From the headline alone, you might expect it to be a caption of a nice photo of, say, the sun rising over a cooling tower as a group of worshippers nearby celebrate an Easter Sunday sunrise service. Only when you read the text do you find that early that morning, a group of workers at the Entergy Operations Inc. plant were using a temporary crane to move a 500-ton piece of equipment called a generator stator. This assembly of copper and steel is the stationary part of the electrical generator, and is just like any other stator in a coal-fired or gas-fired plant. As they were moving the huge stator, the temporary crane failed. Five hundred tons falling even a few feet will acquire a tremendous amount of kinetic energy. When it hit the floor, pieces flew around the generator hall. One worker—a 25-year-old Arkansas Tech grad named Wade Walters—was killed, and eight others injured. As a result of the damage, the outside power to part of the plant was interrupted, and the plant’s emergency generators started automatically to keep things under control. Once outside power was restored, things returned to normal and cleanup from the accident began. By law, the plant operators were required to notify the NRC of this incident, and this information was posted both on the NRC’s technical incident-notification site and on the public blog. The parts of the plant containing nuclear material were never in any danger of leaking anything as a result of this industrial accident.
The next report I consider is a Russian news website called RT.com. Their headline reads, “Arkansas nuclear plant incident kills one, injures eight.” The phrase “nuclear plant incident” will arouse in the susceptible reader images of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, both accidents in which extensive damage resulted to the nuclear parts of the plant. Three Mile Island, a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania that partially melted down in 1979, released a small amount of nuclear-laced gas, but caused no deaths or injuries. The Chernobyl disaster, which happened in 1986 in Ukraine (then a part of the old USSR) was much more serious, killing dozens promptly and releasing large amounts of nuclear material that led to the condemnation of many square miles around the plant and a rise in radiation-related illnesses for years afterwards. So Russians have good reason to be touchy about anything that goes wrong at a nuclear facility.
The RT article plays up the human-interest side, with extensive quotations from those mourning the loss of Mr. Walters. The general tone of the report can be assessed from the first quotation in it: “ ‘We are deeply saddened by what has happened today,’ executive vice president and chief nuclear officer Jeff Forbes said in a public statement, without providing details about the cause of the young man’s death or the severity of the other victims’ injuries.” Now, there may not have been any intent to cover up or deceive in the fact that Mr. Forbes did not provide the aforementioned details. He simply may not have known enough accurate information to say, and in any event, the details of injuries to private individuals are normally considered privileged medical information. But the way the statement is framed leads the suspicious reader to think Mr. Forbes may be hiding something.
Notice that the Enformable report begins with the worst outcome of the incident: “fatal.” And while it is true that part of the plant was without external power for a very short time, the emergency generators started normally and allowed operators and automatic controls to take the appropriate actions that prevented anything out of the ordinary from happening to the plant’s nuclear operation. But if you read the headline alone, you may get the impression that someone at the plant might have died from radiation or other specifically nuclear-related cause, and that the plant is still sitting there disabled through lack of outside power.
Public-relations people call such slanting “spin,” and for some time we have lived in an age of spin. But once information reaches the public domain, it is no longer “objective” in some abstract, depersonalized sense. Those who convey it to their various publics—and in the age of the WorldWideWeb, there are more different kinds and divisions of publics than ever before—will inevitably emphasize certain aspects of a story over others, and lead their readers to do the same.
The engineer who thinks all this sort of thing is beneath contempt, and that a simple objective statement of the facts ought to clear up all dispute, is fooling himself (or herself). While public opinion may be misinformed, distorted, or even flat wrong, everyone in the nuclear industry, including engineers, has to operate in the real world, not in some idealized technical utopia where everyone sees everything the same way. And the sooner engineering students recognize and understand that aspect of engineering, the better.
Sources: I thank Andy Taylor of Entergy Operations Inc. for drawing my attention to this incident. The URLs for the three reports are: http://public-blog.nrc-gateway.gov/2013/04/01/easter-sunday-and-arkansas-nuclear-one/ (NRC); http://rt.com/usa/arkansas-nuclear-plant-accident-170/ (rt.com); and http://enformable.com/2013/04/accident-at-arkansas-nuclear-one-leaves-unit-without-offsite-power/ (enformable.com). I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on the Three Mile Island accident and the Chernobyl disaster.