On my way back from Oktoberfest, which was awesome, my fellow car passengers discussed the decision by Germany to phase out nuclear energy over time. We all felt that this was an incredibly stupid long term decision. We agreed that it was a knee jerk reaction to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. However, this raised some other questions about how to enact energy policy choices as well as other technology/science policies. We mostly focused on energy as that was the topic of interest, but it really does spill over to most scientific/technology policies at a national level.
The obvious solution to most engineers is to set up a panel of experts and have them come up with the best choices for energy sources. There are some flaws to this line of thinking, sadly. First, who selects these experts? Let's use the US as a model country in this regard. There will be a huge battle over what experts should be included in the panel. If it has to be split 50/50 between experts selected by the Republicans and Democrats we'll most likely have a group of lobbyists for the Oil and Gas industries from the Republicans, and a mixture of wind and solar experts from the Democrats. Nuclear energy maybe completely left off the radar. Even though there are tons of technologies out there that are hugely safer than the Fukushima nuclear reactors.
Additionally, nuclear energy has a stigma associated with it due to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima. It doesn't matter that coal is as destructive or that oil and natural gas extraction causes almost immediate negative impacts in the local environment. Why? Because these are huge job creation industries and also have been legitimatized over the course of the past 100+ years in many regions. For example in Pennsylvania, where Three Mile Island resides, coal is a way of life for many people. It has been an occupation that many people have been doing all their lives. There are nuclear facilities in the state still, but they are viewed with much more skepticism, lack of trust and fear by local residents.
Many engineers are something of a technocrat, where they believe that technology can solve a huge number of issues and that technology experts should be making many policy decisions related to technology issues. These technocrats are viewed with skepticism from the broader public. In many cases there are huge debates over the sources of the data and the reports which accompany many of these technology experts. In the case of GMO, even when the public is given information from both sides it is not trusted. Why? because people have lost faith in their governments and believe that there are scientific conspiracies to enact practices that are dangerous.
In my next blog I'll discuss some more issues with these topics. I'll go into some detail of cases where large differences in views were eventually over come.