The  events  at  Brookhaven  National  Laboratory  (BNL)  in  1997  have beendescribed  as  a  catastrophe  in  the  engineering  sense  of  the  word; whathappens  when  a  complex  system  grows  out  of  synch  with  its  environment, so  that  it  operates  for  a  time  in  a  domain  of  instability,  until  a  tiny,  apparently insignificant incident causes the system to break down or operate in a drastically new  mode.    The  incident  was  the  discovery  of  a  slow  leak  of  water  containing tritium  from  the  spent  fuel  pool  of  the  High  Flux  Beam  Reactor  (HFBR),  which flowed south of the reactor in a plume. Exactly how this slow leak, which was not a  public  health  threat,  triggered  the  firing  of  BNL's  contractor,  the  permanent shutdown  of  the  HFBR,  and  nearly  crashed  BNL  itself  that  reveals  much  about science in the public sphere.

 I  review  the  events  briefly.   Key  background  factors  are  historical  (the Shoreham  nuclear  power  plant),  psychological  (what  Spencer  Weart  calls nuclear  fear),  institutional  (leadership  transitions  between  BNL, its  contracting agency,  and  the  Department  of  Energy),  as  well  as  some  relating  to  media behavior.   The  media  is  like  a  prism,  which  systematically  distorts  what  passes through it while giving the illusion of transparency.

I'll show examples from BNL in 1997 of types of media behavior that affected the outcome:  what  I  call  "Information  Shakedown,"  "Indiscriminate  Magnification," "Stage  Direction"  and  "Little  Pieces,  Big  Story?"   All  four  are  important  to understanding not only the events at BNL, but the public perception of science in complex situations involving environmental risk.

Factors  like  this  show  that  it  is  not  profitable  to  treat  a  volatile  situation involving a scientific-technical dimension in which people have lost confidence in traditional sources of authority as a problem just of the media, scientific illiteracy, or  irrationality.   Public  responses  to  events  involving  technical  issues  in  volatile situations need to be understood as reactions to a complete social situation, and must  be  addressed  accordingly. I  discuss  a  few  lessons  suggested  by  the events  at  BNL  in  1997  of  ways  to  go  about  this.   Many  of  these  are  argued  in more conceptual depth in a related paper by Evan Selinger.



 

">
 [PCST]
PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Breakdown! The Events of 1997 at Brookhaven National Laboratory

Robert P. Crease   Historian, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, NY

The  events  at  Brookhaven  National  Laboratory  (BNL)  in  1997  have beendescribed  as  a  catastrophe  in  the  engineering  sense  of  the  word; whathappens  when  a  complex  system  grows  out  of  synch  with  its  environment, so  that  it  operates  for  a  time  in  a  domain  of  instability,  until  a  tiny,  apparently insignificant incident causes the system to break down or operate in a drastically new  mode.    The  incident  was  the  discovery  of  a  slow  leak  of  water  containing tritium  from  the  spent  fuel  pool  of  the  High  Flux  Beam  Reactor  (HFBR),  which flowed south of the reactor in a plume. Exactly how this slow leak, which was not a  public  health  threat,  triggered  the  firing  of  BNL's  contractor,  the  permanent shutdown  of  the  HFBR,  and  nearly  crashed  BNL  itself  that  reveals  much  about science in the public sphere.

 I  review  the  events  briefly.   Key  background  factors  are  historical  (the Shoreham  nuclear  power  plant),  psychological  (what  Spencer  Weart  calls nuclear  fear),  institutional  (leadership  transitions  between  BNL, its  contracting agency,  and  the  Department  of  Energy),  as  well  as  some  relating  to  media behavior.   The  media  is  like  a  prism,  which  systematically  distorts  what  passes through it while giving the illusion of transparency.

I'll show examples from BNL in 1997 of types of media behavior that affected the outcome:  what  I  call  "Information  Shakedown,"  "Indiscriminate  Magnification," "Stage  Direction"  and  "Little  Pieces,  Big  Story?"   All  four  are  important  to understanding not only the events at BNL, but the public perception of science in complex situations involving environmental risk.

Factors  like  this  show  that  it  is  not  profitable  to  treat  a  volatile  situation involving a scientific-technical dimension in which people have lost confidence in traditional sources of authority as a problem just of the media, scientific illiteracy, or  irrationality.   Public  responses  to  events  involving  technical  issues  in  volatile situations need to be understood as reactions to a complete social situation, and must  be  addressed  accordingly. I  discuss  a  few  lessons  suggested  by  the events  at  BNL  in  1997  of  ways  to  go  about  this.   Many  of  these  are  argued  in more conceptual depth in a related paper by Evan Selinger.



 

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

BACK TO TOP