phoenix art

Phoenix Project: From Kikuchi to Fastest Path

An International Symposium on Sociotechnical Research on Nuclear Technology

November 7–8, 2024
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Many of nuclear energy’s most significant challenges or wicked problems are not solely technical but in fact sociotechnical in nature—which is to say that they have essential and inextricably intertwined social and technical dimensions.¹

Nuclear energy’s wicked problems include but are not limited to difficulties in seeing through new technology ideas from inception to implementation; cost overruns, financing difficulties, and megaproject pathologies experienced by nuclear energy projects; regulatory institutional infrastructures that often curtail meaningful learning; a narrow way of thinking about risk and safety which has implications for public engagement; a mistrustful and antagonistic relationship with society; failures to successfully engage communities in the siting and technology development process; the still unsolved problem of long-term management of nuclear waste; the dual-use nature of nuclear technologies and resulting security and non-proliferation concerns; and equity and environmental justice issues that pervade several aspects of policy and decision-making. 

These problems have not gone unaddressed. Decades of research and scholarship on these problems have been conducted by intellectually distant fields operating, until recently, in intellectual silos, and separating the social from the technical. These separate lines of inquiry rely on conceptual frameworks and tools written in field-specific jargon—jargon that has made bridging the intellectual divide across the disciplines even more challenging.²

Equally challenging, and difficult to ford, are the normative commitments of scholars in different fields, with engineers historically taking a pro-technology stance while researchers from the humanities and social sciences adopt more critical stances. These normative commitments or polarized ‘sides’ have made collaboration difficult, or at least very sparse. 

Finally, the origins of these wicked problems or sociotechnical challenges can, at least in part, be attributed to the education and training of (nuclear) engineers, which has not, until recently, including in our own universities, acknowledged the sociotechnical nature of nuclear engineering work or sought to provide nuclear engineers with the tools to grapple with the social, political, economic,  moral, and ethical challenges created and encountered as a result of the development and use of nuclear energy technologies.³

Despite these challenges, and as a result of new support from funding agencies, researchers from across these fields have embarked on interdisciplinary research efforts⁴ that seek to variously inform, support, to assess, and critique renewed efforts to develop new nuclear technologies. 

This symposium takes place five years following a similar initiative hosted by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.⁵ Five years hence, we aim to take stock. How far have we come? What are our shared objectives or sources of disagreement? What does it mean to do meaningful, novel, and rigorous sociotechnical work? What is the path forward? And what institutional and organizational measures can be taken to continue to support this interdisciplinary work?  

Authors were invited to reflect on these questions in their papers and aim to create structured opportunities for this discussion at the symposium itself. We see the symposium as a shared field-building activity. 

The symposium will culminate with the endowment of the Chihiro Kikuchi Collegiate Professorship to Todd Allen.

Scope

We invited papers on the following themes: 

  • Histories of nuclear technologies, people, places, and things
  • Innovation and design
  • Regulation and safety
  • Nuclear waste and consent-based siting 
  • Technoeconomic analyses and merits their limitations 
  • Nuclear technologies and environmental justice 
  • Law and policy studies 
  • Nuclear technology, philosophy, and ethics
  • Sociotechnical studies of fusion energy technologies
  • The intersection of engineering, art, and the social sciences
  • Teaching engineering as a sociotechnical endeavor 
  • Communication in nuclear energy contexts, including nuclear semiotics

We especially welcomed papers showcasing collaborations between engineering, humanities, and social sciences. We also encouraged early career researchers—students and recent graduates—to showcase their work. 

About the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project

The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project was conceived in 1948 as a living memorial to the 585 university alumni, students, faculty, and staff members who gave their lives in World War II. It is devoted to the peaceful, useful, and beneficial applications and implications of nuclear science and technology for the welfare of the human race. Today, the memorial houses several NERS facilities and projects that support the Phoenix mission, including the Fastest Path to Zero Initiative, the Consortium for Monitoring, Technology, & Verification, the Glenn F. Knoll Nuclear Measurements Laboratory, and more.

About the Fastest Path to Zero Initiative

The Fastest Path to Zero Initiative is dedicated to addressing challenging questions about how policymakers, researchers, and communities can collaborate to achieve ambitious climate goals in Michigan and nationwide. The initiative focuses on building and maintaining external and cross-campus collaborations to optimize the use of nuclear energy in the 21st century. It emphasizes participatory research by developing inclusive approaches to the design and deployment of nuclear energy infrastructure. The team also creates user-friendly decision-support tools to assist advanced nuclear companies in locating potential host communities. A significant aspect of Fastest Path’s work involves researching historical and current nuclear equity and justice issues, as well as understanding community needs and societal preferences.

About Chihiro Kikuchi 

Professor Chihiro Kikuchi earned a B.S. degree in Physics at the University of Washington in 1939. He went on to graduate work in mathematics at the University of Cincinnati and received a Master’s degree in 1943. He returned to the University of Washington to pursue a doctoral degree in Physics, which was granted in 1944.

He began his career in Ann Arbor in 1955 as an associate research physicist with the Willow Run Laboratories of the University. His career at Willow Run included advancement to the position of Head, Solid State Physics Group, in 1958. Professor Kikuchi’s original contributions have been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution through their establishment of a permanent exhibit that acknowledges his invention of the ruby maser.

In 1959, he joined the teaching staff of the Department of Nuclear Engineering. His research continued in the area of solid-state physics, radiation effects in materials, and fundamental aspects of material science. His interests have included public policy issues in the development of nuclear energy and the international aspects of energy resource development. His many technical accomplishments have been recognized by his elevation to Fellow status in both the American Physical Society and the American Nuclear Society.

Professor Kikuchi is a contributing author or co-author to three books. His publication record also includes over 80 technical articles in various journals and symposium proceedings.

About Nuclear Technology

Edited by Dr. Yassin Hassan, Nuclear Technology (NT) is the leading international publication reporting new information on the practical application of nuclear science for peaceful uses. expanded reach to its 11,000  global members as well as dozens of research libraries and institutions. It publishes technical papers, technical notes, critical reviews, rapid communications, book reviews, and letters to the editor on all phases of applications of fundamental research to nuclear technology.

Topics include all aspects of reactor technology: operations, safety, materials, instrumentation, fuel, and waste management. Also covered are medical uses, radiation detection, production of radiation, health physics, and computer applications. Authors: Publication of articles in NT is free of charge. Optionally, open access publication is available for a fee.

Guidelines for Abstract Submission

Authors were requested to submit the following here by June 7: 

  • A 500-word abstract 
  • A short reflection (under 1000 words) on (a) gaps (as they perceive them) in sociotechnical research and pedagogy particularly as they pertain to nuclear technology; (b) possible measures that can be taken to fill those gaps 
Footnotes

¹See Rittel, Horst WJ, and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy sciences 4.2 (1973): 155-169. Wicked problems, by their very nature, are difficult to define because they may be framed differently by different groups. They seldom, if ever, have definitive, everlasting solutions. There is little room for trial and error in the search for solutions to these problems. Solution attempts have real-world consequences and failed attempts have real-world repercussions (consider, for example, the failed attempt to site the Yucca Mountain repository).

 ²Verma, Aditi. “The nuclear, humanities, and social science nexus: Challenges and opportunities for speaking across the disciplinary divides.” Nuclear Technology 207.9 (2021): iii-xv.

³Verma, Aditi. “Reckoning with the wicked problems of nuclear technology: Philosophy, design, and pedagogical method underlying a course on Nuclear Technology, Policy, and Society.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2403.11422 (2024) ; Verma, Aditi, and Denia Djokić. “Reimagining nuclear engineering.” Issues in Science and Technology 37.3 (2021): 64-69.

⁴Some examples include projects on Nuclear Cultural Heritage, Nuclear Waters, Atomic Terrain, an Environmental Justice and Equity Framework for Siting Nuclear Energy in Amerca’s Arctic, and Integrating socially led co-design into consent-based siting of interim storage facilities (to name some.)

⁵That initiative resulted in a special issue in the journal Nuclear Technology which can be found here.