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Richard Meehan

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

Titles by This Author

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.

"What is it," a friend of Meehan's once asked, "that you engineers actually do?"

The nine stories in this book, drawn from different periods and episodes in the author's life, clearly and entertainingly convey both the human and technical sides of an engineering education and the life of a consulting engineer. Meehan, who carried a journal with him during the course of his work, brings a quite different perspective to ordinary and extraordinary situations.

Thought to be practical by nature, engineers are also idealistic: "...somewhere out there," Meehan imagines, "is the perfect design, the Perfect Dam." Snowbound on the Rio Pangle and A Dam for La Pra Plerng tell about his investigations of possible dam sites on a plateau in Thailand and in the Chilean Andes.

In the first story Meehan solves an intriguing geological puzzle: "If nature had already built a reservoir here, we should only have to repair the breach in the rockslide dam to restore nature's lake for our own purpose. And yet in all of the site explorations...we found only loose broken rock. When I tried to pump water out of [an abandoned] shaft, it rushed back in as fast as the fifty gallons a minute we could pump. That was at least a number, and when I took that number and translated it mathematically into a leakage rate for a reservoir, the rate was such that the reservoir would never fill. But that's not what happened! It had filled before! Something prevented the water from leaking out. But what? Then I would look over that forlorn landscape again; at the porous gravel, and the loose rocky debris of the fans and the rockslide. Whatever it was, it must be hidden from view. There was a secret waiting to be uncovered; this stony valley was teasing me with clues...."

At Lam Pra Plerng as an AID soil engineer, Meehan unfolds a series of political and social misadventures, portrays warm friendships and everyday life in the Thai jungle, and in the process carries out what may be the most unusual experiment in appropriate technology ever recorded.

Coming of Age at SAE, The Man Who Bought Route 128, and A Freshman Retrospective describe aspects of Meehan's engineering education at MIT. Here he is introduced to the political dimensions and ethical implications of consulting engineering and to the fundamental basis of his future work.

Confessions of a Military Engineer presents vignettes from life inside the Army Corps of Engineers, while Sediment finds the author involved in a dispute between a small town's Department of Public Works and the U. S. Forest Service. Haiti One More Time brings together Meehan's MIT training, earthquakes, retaining walls, and politics with a bemused touch.

"They came after me when I was in bed with the flu," Meehan writes in the last story. His predicament in Getting Sued is all downhill after that. A young engineer starting a new business, a new highschool, "fat clay," and a casual contractor and construction crew are the ingredients of what may be every engineer's nightmare.

Richard Meehan's career has taken him from MIT to the Andes of central Chile and to northeast Thailand, where "there were insects that laid eggs in your skin as you slept."