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Paperback | $20.00 Short | £13.95 | ISBN: 9780262631068 | 208 pp. | 6 x 9 in | November 1986

The Atom and the Fault

Experts, Earthquakes, and Nuclear Power


With wit and thoughtful compassion, Richard Meehan presents one of the most perplexing of contemporary moral predicaments, one that arises in every attempt to assess potentially hazardous technologies. He focuses on the longrunning controversy over suspected earthquake faults near the nation's first corporately owned nuclear test reactor at Vallecitos, California, and uses this account of "the politics of expertise" to probe the nature of scientific truth and its relationship to the determination of public safety.

At Vallecitos, Meehan points out, the opinions of the "experts" were radically divided. Where one group saw clear and ominous evidence of an earthquake fault in trenches dug at this showpiece site, others saw only the mark of an ancient landslide. How did these experts arrive at their opinions? Were they simply representing corporate, as opposed to environmentalist, points of view? And how are the public regulatory agencies charged with deciding such issues supposed to balance these seemingly irreconcilable opinions?

The Atom and the Fault explores these crucial questions as the issue of the earthquake safety of nuclear power plants continues to grow into a struggle encompassing government regulatory bodies, public utilities, private industry, engineers, geologists, and citizen activists. It paints candid portraits of the principal expert players, clarifies the difficult and often delicate interplay of honesty and loyalties among them, and lucidly explains the technical issues and viewpoints involved.

As a professional participant in several environmental controversies in which so-called scientific facts were represented by opposing points of view, Meehan is uniquely qualified to tell this tale. He is a consultant to industry, government agencies, and law firms specializing in forecasting and damage assessment related to earthquakes and land failures. His first book, Getting Sued and Other Tales of the Engineering Life, was published by The MIT Press in 1981.

About the Author

Richard Meehan is an adjunct professor in the Values, Technology, Science, and Society program at Stanford University.