Engineers and philosophers gathered to discuss the meaning of ethics in the context of nuclear security at a panel Tuesday evening in Sutardja Dai Hall.
The panel event, titled “Ethics in Nuclear Security Science and Policy,” was hosted by the Nuclear Policy Working Group, which is a campus group that connects students and faculty members to discuss and educate the community on issues in nuclear security. This year’s panel discussion tackled the ethics behind nuclear trade agreements existing in certain countries such as Iran and South Korea, among other topics.
Guest panelists this year were Zachary Davis, a senior fellow at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists; Per Peterson, campus professor of nuclear engineering; and Sabine Roeser, a professor of ethics at TU Delft in the Netherlands.
“When planning the event, we found out that a lot of people don’t know what ethics means,” said Bethany Goldblum, director of the Nuclear Policy Working Group, in an interview before the panel. “It was hard to generate questions for the panelists even amongst our group.”
Yet most scientists agree that working across multiple disciplines to tackle ethical questions in nuclear science and security remains necessary. For example, determining the ethics behind nuclear security, a field that regulates nuclear materials to be used for peaceful applications such as energy production, requires a philosophical training that might be lacking in certain engineering disciplines.
In Berkeley, the city’s request that the university cease its management of the Livermore lab and Los Alamos National Laboratory in February 2013 exemplifies an ethical conflict between the university’s association with nuclear research and the city’s nuclear-free ordinance.
“Students who go through engineering do not have enough policy (in their curriculum),” said Jasmina Vujic, a campus professor of nuclear engineering and co-director of the Berkeley Nuclear Research Center who attended the panel event. “On the other hand, humanities get a bit more exposure to the policy but do not get enough scientific or engineering background.”
Aside from appealing to a wider audience from varying disciplines, the panel also stressed the importance of training the next generation of nuclear science and security leaders to address and resolve issues faced by scientists today.
For example, the current benefits that come from nuclear-generated electricity will pose as a problem for future generations in terms of waste disposal. Panel experts said scientists today have an obligation to deal with the consequences before they take effect years later.
According to Roeser, radioactive waste in the Netherlands is collected and stored for at least 100 years, meaning subsequent generations will have to attend to the stored waste after that period of time.
“We have a strong ethical obligation to deal with this (nuclear waste) properly,” Ferguson said. “It’s for our generation but certainly for other generations as well.”