By Anto Mohsin
Ph.D. Candidate, Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University

Themes and Rationales:

This module is drawn from my seminar for undergraduates on examining the so-called “natural” and “technological” disasters, taught at Cornell University in Fall 2013.  Two of the three readings below are taken from the syllabus.  The third one puts the two theories derived from the other two books in action to examine what Scott Sagan, the author, called an intriguing puzzle. Even though there have been many technological and industrial accidents between the 1970s and 1990s, Sagan wondered why hasn’t there been “an accidental or unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon, much less escalation to an accidental nuclear war” (Sagan 1993, 4). Using the two theories as a guide Sagan recounts a fascinating story about his exploration in search of an answer to his question.

For teaching purposes, Sagan’s award-winning book provides an excellent overview of the two theoretical perspectives in the first chapter of his book. But it would be better if students read Charles Perrow’s book Normal Accidents (a highly influential organizational theory of accident) and one of the three major works of the so-called the high reliability school of accident theorists. Joseph Marone and Edward Woodhouse’s Averting Catastrophe is one of the three major works that Sagan mentions in his book.

It is unnecessary to read or assign Perrow’s or Marone and Woodhouse’s whole books.  Perrow’s large tome is full of various technological systems that he analyzes in detail and would take a lot of time to read all of them. It would be sufficient to assign chapters 1, 3, 9, and the Afterword of Normal Accidents to students.   Likewise, students would get the gist of Averting Catastrophe by reading chapters 1 and 7. Of course if time permits reading the two books in their entirety would give readers excellent examples of the kinds of cases that support both theories.

Juxtaposing the “optimistic view” (high reliability theory) and “pessimistic view” (normal accident) of the two theories of accidents would help students understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of the two conceptual frameworks. They may also be able to explain the Fukushima “triple disaster” or the operation of any other nuclear power plants using either or both perspectives.

Readings:

  1. Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
  2. Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, New edition, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
    [Teach 3.11 annotation]
  3. Joseph G. Morone and Edward J. Woodhouse, Averting Catastrophe: Strategies for Regulating Risky Technologies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
Educational Module: Two Organizational Theories of Accidents and the US Nuclear Weapons System

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