Sunday, March 7, 2010

Thomas Pigford:

His Legacy for Us

Dr. Thomas H. Pigford, another icon in the story of nuclear power development, died this past week. Dr. Pigford is well known to many in the nuclear profession for his long and productive career, and for the number of important and lasting contributions he made to the nuclear field.

Of all his many accomplishments, I would like to focus on one that may, at first, seem very small. In reading the obituaries summing up his life's work (for example, the obituary in the New York Times), I was particularly struck by a comment he made as a member of the commission that investigated the accident at Three Mile Island:

“Every technology imposes a finite degree of risk upon society, both in its routine operation and in the occurrence of accidents,” he wrote. “The essential question is the trade-off between the risks and the benefits."

How true that was in weighing the effects of that accident and how true that is today.

This is a statement made 30 years ago that is still not sufficiently understood today by members of the public. Yes, those of us with technical training and experience understand the statement, but the larger population seems not to understand. We still hear concerns about the risks of nuclear power plants as though there were no risks at all from other technologies.

I do not know what risks were on Dr. Pigford's mind when he made that statement, but I would go further than health and safety risks and point also to the risks to national security of relying on resources from unstable parts of the world.

In thinking these last few days about Dr. Pigford's legacy, it seems to me that his work isn't done. Maybe this is something we in the nuclear field already all know and do, but reading his words from a generation ago has reminded me that, when we talk to others outside our profession, we need to continue the challenge of putting into context the risks and benefits of all technologies.

As we mourn the passing of another of the great early figures of nuclear technology, we can honor his memory by trying to further the public understanding of this very important message.


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