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This article, written by Olli Tammilehto and translated by Timo Vuorio, has been published in Finnish as an abridged version in Suomen Kuvalehti, June 11, 1993, and in Swedish in Ny Tid, May 27, 1993. You can republish it in English or in any other language but you should first inform the author.

Atomic Arrogance


•Hierarchies of knowledge and social order

•Reluctant reality

•Manhattan's magic lamp

•Shimmer begins to fade

•Man-machine

•Communication fractures

•Machine psychology



In 1979 a leading figure in the Finnish nuclear establishment visited a study circle that a group of environmental activists – myself included – were having. The guy did not hesitate and opened his presentation by telling that he is very talented. For further assurance he told that in high school he got the best possible marks in practically all the subjects.

Hierarchies of knowledge and social order

When certain ideals and the corresponding social and political aspirations have been around long enough it is easy to confuse them with reality. It is not difficult to believe that those ideals have actually come true and to close eyes from any facts that do not fit the view.

This is one of the reasons why it is so hard for us to understand nuclear power. Two fundamental ideals and projects of modern Europe – that so many confuse with reality – culminate in nuclear technology. These can be called the ideal of knowledge pyramid and the ideal of pyramid society.

The ideal of knowledge pyramid is the management and manipulation of nature on the basis of general laws. From these laws, by the means of logic and mathematics, you derive all the knowledge concerning nature – for instance the rules you must obey in order to use nature's powers and materials for the production of electricity. Knowledge is a hierarchal system, a pyramid-like structure where the general truths on the top level imply the next level's slightly more detailed and mundane truths and so on, and eventually we will end up with the very detailed and simple practical information (or truths, if you please) the worker needs when executing the actual deeds.

The ideal of pyramid society is to arrange society and all its parts into a hierarchically operating organization, again very much like a pyramid. Decisions concerning organization's goals are made on the top level. On the next level more specific goals are derived from those and from the general rules that the highest level has settled upon and so on. And finally people at the pyramid's lowest level do the practical work following orders given from higher levels. When people work in an organization lke this it is essential that they ignore their own characteristic aspirations and values that are at stake in everyday life, and concentrate on executing the given orders as rationally as possible.

The two ideals have reinforced each other from the very beginning. The ideal of knowledge pyramid has legitimated the governance of those on the highest levels of the organisational pyramid: because they have the most general and (quite paradoxically) fundamental knowledge in the pyramid of knowledge, they also know how the people on lower levels must act, better than those themselves.

Those who try to implement the two ideals support each other, too. States and companies generously fund science based on knowledge pyramid. Even though researchers repeatedly emphasize the inevitable uncertainity of all theory in academic discourse, they can usually speak out with no ambiguity when they work as experts for any organization.

Reluctant reality

However, reality refuses to submit to the hierarchy of knowledge. Mechanical science based on knowledge pyramid was very popular among upper classes in the late 18th and the early 19th century, but despite this it had practically nothing to do with the so-called industrial revolution that is widely considered as THE triumph of human intelligence. In many ways the revolution was the product of economical and political aspirations, but it was based on ordinary (handi-)craftsmen's practical knowledge and skills, and uneducated people's inventions, and many of these were invented long before the emergence of the ideal of management of nature on the basis of knowledge hierarchy.

Huge efforts have been made in order to displace practical technical knowledge by the transformation of technology and by the division of work, but these efforts have failed time after time: to run a factory – and particularly to build one – takes much more than engineers' calculus and architects' blueprints. You always need skilled workmen whose knowledge is gained very practically from their actual experience with the particular materials, tools and machines used for their actual deeds.

Quite naturally engineers and the upper echelons of society ignore all this. But there is a strong oral tradition of despising theorists and praising the practical worker. Very likely most of us have been involved in such a discussion.

Implementing the ideal of pyramid society is equally difficult. It is very hard not to confuse one's duties within the organization with one's personal life. Corruption is the rule and not the exception in many countries. In any state – the most disciplined included – economy and governance has been tied in numerous ways into a "bureucratic-economical complex", where the official government does not have control over everything but is often being affected (if not manipulated) from every quarter instead. Practically all companies and corporations have, not just the official hierarchy, but several unofficial organizations and networks also, and if these are ignored the company's operation typically suffers badly.

Furthermore: even though the two ideals seem to converge they are very hard to combine in practise. Pyramid-like organization is not very efficient in producing hierarchal systems of knowledge. It does, however, produce piles and piles of fractured and disordered data. Top researchers who contribute the most to the hierarchy of knowledge more often work in informal networks than in hierarchal organizations.


Manhattan's magic lamp

At first glance it seems that in the case of nuclear power the ideals of organisational and knowledge pyramid come true and combine particularly well. The realization of nuclear power as we know it was begun during the war in the famous "Manhattan project". Some 150 000 people were organized into a strict hierarchal system to develop the new technology and only a handful knew the goals of their work. The project was founded essentially on nothing else but the knowledge derived from new physical theories – very much according to the ideal of knowledge pyramid. There simply was no use for the practical knowledge of enginemakers like in the development of the steam-engine nor the very informally acting "young inventors and experimenters" (who were inspired by the theoretical predictions of science, however) as in the creating of the radio. Furthermore the physicists were not allowed to remain critical and independent advisers, but their connections to the international academic network were broken off and they were organized into the military Manhattan-hierarchy.

The authorities trusted in the theoretical knowledge so much that nuclear power was put in practice after just a few experiments. On the other hand Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced drastically more information on the biological effects of radiation than the desert tests.

Nuclear power plants were developed in the same hierarchal manner as atom bombs inside the was system. Also the first achievements of the militarist organizations in this field were militarist: plants produced energy in submarines and plutonium for bombs. Quite soon part of the nuclear project was released from military control but this did not put an end to the love affair of pyramid-like organisation and knowledge pyramid. One reason for the continuation of the relation was the post-Hiroshima guilt that many physicists felt and which made them want to participate in the governemental regulation and promotion of nuclear technology. Many researchers learned to identify with "national interests" and left the independent, critical and relatively unhierarchical milieu of the academic world behind.

Now it seemed that science and modern organizations had found the way to abundant and happy future. David Dietz from the USA stated: "The alchemist dream of making lead into gold is all about to come true". Walt Disney and Heinz Haber educated the upcoming generation of nuke promoters in the following way: "The magic power of the Spirit of Atom labours soon for the benefit of all the mankind. It may bring the achievements of modern technology to the most remote corners of the world. It can provide more food, better health – many good fruits of science for all humanity."

Shimmer begins to fade

However the facade of nuclear power began to crack in the late 1960's. The emerging environmental movement encouraged several nuclear physicists and radiation biologists to publicly criticize the official "nuclear science" and its views of radiation risks and the chances of nuclear accidents. In 1973 a research report, originally commissioned by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1964, was released on court order. The report stated that a major nuclear power plant accident would kill 65 000 persons, injure 100 000, pollute an area comparable to England and cause a damage worth of 17 billion dollars to property.

Accidents actually happened and information on hidden or belittled "nuclear incidents" of the past began to be unveiled. The spell of atom vanished.

But the brave champions of the ideals of knowledge and social pyramid did not give up their brainchild so easily. They had invested billions of dollars, roubles, pounds, francs, yens and marks plus countless hours of work – not to mention all of their authority – into nuclear technology and all this demanded its reproduction.

The "human error" became the keyword in the apologies of "nuclear scientists". Technology as itself is in no way faulty, accidents are by no means the product of technology but of human errors, of mistakes by men who run the technological devices and systems. Members of the operational staff have been sloppy and have ignored the computerized control systems' warning signs or misreacted to them. The maintenance worker became a common suspect: he had used a cigarette lighter instead of a flashlight for instance. Sometimes the construction worker had not been careful – he might have left a wrench or some other tool inside the reactor's cooling system's channels. Occasionally (not too often) even the designing engineer was blamed for not anticipating the possibility of a problem that occured later.

Man-machine

But what do we actually mean when we say that an accident was caused by a human error? To err is human so to use nuclear power safely apparently requires that men act in an inhuman manner – like machines.

Co-operation between men should be flawless too. In other words the organization should be a machine. And this actually is the heart of the ideal of pyramid society: society must act (and can be made to act) as pedantically and precisely as a machine.

The theoreticians of social pyramid in the early modern times were impressed by clocksmiths' works where figures of men and musical instruments moved elaborately, in addition to the hands that indicated time. And so they wanted to build a clockwork-state from human gears and shafts.

Since that time organization-as-machine has become an everyday concept: there are government machineries and other institutional machineries. These machineries need "lubrication" every now and then however. Companies try to optimize the material and information inputs and outputs of their "man-power units" like they do with the inputs and outputs of their tools made of steel and silicon.

Moreover the designers of a nuclear plant must anticipate the plant's operation under any possible conditions and know how to prepare for all different situations and how to operate in those situations. The ideal of knowledge pyramid encourages the doctors of physics and engineering in this demanding task: as they are on the top level of the pyramid of knowledge they believe they can calculate and predict the plant's operation in any situation.

Obviously the designers and manufacturers of any technological device or system believe or at least hope that everything goes well and as planned. But in most cases there are at least two essential distinctions from nuclear technology. The first is that usually we are not so completely dependent on men working perfectly i.e. not making "human errors": even if everything should fail it would not mean a catastrophe.

Communication fractures

The second difference is the following: in other than nuclear technologies there is much more information outside the hierarchy of knowledge which is not distributed according to the organisational hierarchy, and this practical information can be utilized in various ways. One reason is that the technological device or system is drastically cheaper and easier to manufacture. Test pieces can be constructed and put under various conditions to expose risks and failures. This "economy of small scale" also means that the number of units is larger and their construction does not overlap temporally as much as in the case of nuclear reactors. Accordingly there is much more experimental knowledge from old units, and this knowledge can be utilized in planning and constructing new ones.

In addition to the massive scale of nuclear technology there are some other special features about it that prevent the accumulation of practical knowledge. Because nuclear researchers have always been strongly tied to governemental, military and large-scale corporational organizations, the efforts to implement the ideal of knowledge hierarchy are more common in "nuclear science" than elsewhere. In such a hierarchal research organization the information gained by non-organization workers or lower-level workers may not reach the higher levels of the organization, and even if it does it may not be taken into account. Exactly the same goes for any information that questions the goals of the management and its allies. Thus, the information flow upwards is often blocked.

Manual workers' process of gaining knowledge and learning is also prevented for many reasons: on a hierarchal workplace that has been structured according to ideals of knowledge and organisational pyramid worker's initiative and creativity is normally unnecessary or even harmful. This results in passivity which obviously does not inspire the worker to gain practical knowledge – or to gain the ability to put his knowledge in practice in creative ways in exceptional or even fatal situations.

Intense radiation has similar consequences: in a power plant there are crucial areas and spaces where workers cannot usually go, and if they can they can only perceive essential events by the means of various meters and monitor equipment. It is impossible for the same worker to do repairs at the riskiest places regularly because this would lead to the accumulation of radiation – not just the accumulation of skills. To avoid this nuclear plants often use temporary employees to work in these places. But the temporary worker cannot learn much because of his inexperience and the urgency caused by radiation. And if he does gain valuable practical information during his "dive into radiation" it is hard or impossible to incorporate this information into the plant's instructional repertoire during his brief work period.

So nuclear power is much more based on knowledge pyramid and organization-machine's flawless operation than any other branch of technology. But the reality is complex and does not submit to universal truths thoroughly. Also man's ability to know truths is very limited. Moreover: man is not a machine. So any claim that nuclear power can be safe is based on dreams that can never come true.

Machine psychology

You can try to reach the utopia of pyramid society but you will never get there. However, if people and social systems somewhere sometime act more or less like machines, chances are that nuclear technology will work somewhat safer there than elsewhere. But it is dangerous to pin one's hopes on the little higher safety level thus achieved:

The ability to act like a machine is based on a certain mentality and work ethic which occur in particular among men rooted in European protestant cultures. Characteristic of this "protestant mentality" is an exceptional way of identifying with a type of "goal-rationality" – particularly during day time and when one is sober. A person imbued with the mentality ignores his independent moral thought, emotions and own corporeality. Globally and historically this kind of mentality is an oddity and by no means desirable because of many personal and social problems caused by it. Also the current tendency towards consumer society and the – in many ways opposite to this – tendency towards a more ecological and humane society seem not to converge with this kind of mentality.

The work ethic that makes men execute conscientiously deeds they are not interested in and whose purpose they do not understand – in other words work that the worker feels senseless – is even more clearly a passing phenomenon. Accordingly, the small differences in dangerousness between nuclear power stations in different countries will vanish.

Then what is so fascinating about the hierarchal system of knowledge and the organization-machine? What makes so many authorities and other decision makers want to leave the safety of wide areas and populations dependent on these castles in the air?

One reason must be that they seem to promise the elites huge power, both over other people and over the nature. The world does not submit to the ideals of pyramid society and knowledge pyramid, but as they are essential parts of our everyday language and thought they can legitimate the elites' actual governance and privileges: it has been possible to make the common man's wisdom and creativity invisible. This discourse of justification has blinded the elites and in their arrogance they can set about such megalomanic projects: to build systems whose supposed safety is built on an illusion – the illusion that the elites really possess divine knowledge and power.

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