The Optimist’s Conundrum

During the past two weeks, life in my household has gone a little crazy. It all started after the earthquake in Japan and as the nuclear plants at Fukushima Dai ichi began to have trouble staying adequately cooled. I spend some time on line with a group of relatively like-minded individuals and they were lamenting that many of the “experts” in the media discussing the event were from the vocal anti-nuclear energy groups around the country. Anyone who knows me, knows that I like a challenge, so while I’m working furiously on a client proposal, I fling out one line to the group. “I hereby volunteer my services. How do we go about getting on the “who to call list?”

The next thing I know, a reporter calls me, asking for my technical opinion about the situation as it was known at the time. He did a good job, making sure I had the expertise and experience to be able to answer. Then, he quoted me in his paper – the New York Times.

This simple act, of deciding to take a stand about something I believe in, has turned my life topsy-turvy. I’ve ended up making appearances on FOX, CBS, and NBC, and blog entries on CNN. In addition, I have been talking to and providing perspective and technical knowledge to a number of print media reporters. Doing this puts my career and my reputation at risk. But I could no longer stand in the shadows and say “Somebody should do something.”

“Doing Something” meant stepping WAAAY out of my comfort zone. I’m happy being a guru, living “on the mountain”, dispensing advice, but not being in the spotlight. People come find me, I do not seek them out. If they receive recognition for an idea I gave them, I figured they and I knew and that was enough. My new friends, Fritz and Jackie at Clark Communications, kept talking to me and working to convince me that I could have more influence, if only I would step out of the background.

Not surprisingly, this has been a week of big swings. Appearing for the first time on live TV as a guest on the Sean Hannity show was a big step from providing technical background to reporters to better understand what the utility and the government in Japan were saying. Later in the week, as our two governments disagreed about the state of things and what approach should be taken, I was afraid I’d gotten into deep water without a life vest. I am an engineer, not a politician, though I am good with words. I do not have access to the facts that the Japanese and the American regulators differ from. I do know what the difference meant.

When I was at that low, I realized something about why people don’t usually stand up like I did. There is risk involved in taking a positive stand. I call that risk: “The Optimist’s Conundrum”. It goes something like this:

An optimist and a pessimist both look at a situation. The pessimist says: “It is going to fail. A terrible tragedy. People will die.” The optimist says: “It’s OK, it will work. No one will die.” Events unfold. Things neither one predicted happen. The situation resolves and all can see the result.

If the pessimist was wrong, he can say: “We were lucky. The next time People will die.” BUT, if the optimist was wrong, people died. That is a terrible burden. And one that makes many afraid to be the optimist.

We, who are out there, declaring that things will be OK, are the optimists, but each and every time something happens, we have to step up to that plate and take a swing. And each and every time, we have to hit the ball. Those of us that have stepped out worry, pray, and struggle with doubt when things go awry.

Engineers don’t step into the limelight easily. I’ve often said that you can tell an extroverted engineer because he looks at your shoes instead of his own when talking to you. But we, the engineers who know the nuclear power industry, know how hard we have all worked to make it as safe as possible, and know what these machines can do better than anyone else, have a duty to step up to the plate and take a swing. We have to help people understand our industry, not shroud it in techno-speak and jargon. Acknowledge the flaws and fix them, point out the best practices and make them stronger.

This is why I stepped up and spoke out. To set an example and live by my own words.

8 thoughts on “The Optimist’s Conundrum”

  1. Good work Margaret. Thanks for taking that risk and challenging the field that the doomsayers want to own.

  2. Margaret –Thank you for stepping up.

    Did Hannity provide you with a clip or transcript of the discussion you could post here?

  3. Margaret –
    I am glad you stepped out and stretched yourself to tell the facts in an optimistic way.

    A pessimist life is based on fear (False Evidence Appearing Real). As such pessimist will always justify and make exceptions for anything that happens (good or bad). Standing up to state the facts as we see them will always take us out of our comfort zone.

    Nuclear power carries a mystique and stigma unlike any other due to the lack of information and a lot of misinformation. We need to help people understand just how safe it really is and educate them on it’s benefits.

    Keep up the good work. It is about time you came off that mountain for a while.

  4. Chernobyl was scary enough and we all really should have learned from it. Fukushima could be our extinction event, one wonders who would be left to note our passing if that were so….

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