The Atom and the Fault

The Atom and the Fault

Experts, Earthquakes, and Nuclear Power

By Richard Meehan





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, and an adjunct professor in the Values, Technology, Science, and Society program at Stanford University. His first book, Getting Sued and Other Tales of the Engineering Life was published by The MIT Press in 1981.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262131995 208 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


$20.00 X ISBN: 9780262631068 208 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • This is a fascinating personal account of the seismic safety wars in California, by a participant. It certainly makes the case that the players are not always as objective as they pretend to be.

    H. W. Lewis

    Professor of Physics, University of California

  • This is a detailed, well presented, superbly argued and absolutely fascinating account of one episode in the continuing interaction between science, technology, the law and the public interest. It once and for all puts to rest the idea that science uses a well defined and unambiguous method and speaks with a single voice. It makes it clear that experts participating in and testifying before a public forum are often outside their domain of expertise and therfore speak as laypersons, not as experts. It shows the need for public standards regulating the use of expert knowledge. Containing vivid portraits of the individuals participating in the debate it shows how even very abstract considerations are influenced by the character and the temperament of those producing them. Required reading for historians of science and technology, philosophers of science, regulatory commissions and the members of citizens' initiatives dealing with scientific/technological matters.

    Paul Feyerabend

    University of California and Federal Institute of Technology

  • This is an elegant account of what geologists and engineers do, how they get on with each other, and how they deal with lawyers, bureaucrats, and businessmen. It succeeds admirably in showing that beyond the specifics of particular debates about nuclear reactors and their siting, there is a deeper question: how can we maintain our belief in scientific truth, once we acknowledge that in public controversies scientists are as likely as anyone to behave as 'hired guns?'

    Peter Buck

    Professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society MIT

  • A report from the frontline trenches of technology policy. The book sheds light on the regulation of potentially hazardous technology that only comes from having been there.

    Gregory B. Baecher

    Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, and Head, Constructed Facilities Division