The sacrifices of Japanese engineers and technicians in fighting their nuclear crisis are truly noble. With full knowledge of the possible costs, these selfless workers have been braving an invisible enemy, working to keep reactors cool with sea water, and carving a path for a new power line to restart what systems at the plant may still be usable, to keep the disaster from getting worse.
Their heroism is not diminished by the mistakes of administrators, who decided before this disaster that they would not upgrade cooling systems at existing plants to include isolation condensers. Isolation condensers, if I understand them correctly, do not need electrical power for operation, and so would not have been disabled by the loss of power after the earthquake and tsunami.
The bravery is not detracted by the knowledge that administrators allowed many more radioactive fuel rods to be stored in one plant than it was designed to store, thus making the job of containing them more difficult. It's not detracted by the discovery that administrators neglected to act when made aware of safety issues a long time ago.
When I read about some of the understatedly poignant messages that the technicians who are involved in trying to contain the nuclear crisis have been sending to their relatives back home, such as, “please continue to live well, I cannot be home for a while” (meaning that they may never be home), I had to salute them in my heart.
Their quietly heroic attitude is in stunning contrast to the blatant worship of cost control and profit by the administrators who chose to ignore safety, thinking that the risk was too remote (even though the penalty for mistakes would be quite high).
How many times have you come across a situation in your job where the safety of a product or service was being compromised by a cost-cutting decision that you disagreed with?
The choice between noble and ignoble may seem insignificant at first. It may be easy to go along and chose the craven path. It may even seem like the smart thing to do, when you compare your actions with those of others around you.
But, then, you see the example of the Japanese nuclear plant heroes, and you have to reexamine your own values. I pity those who are not touched by the resolve and strength of character of these champions, or who are not stirred by their valor.
Cost cutting, economics, and profit are of course legitimate goals, but not at the cost of young men possibly giving up their lives to radiation poisoning to make up for a lack of managerial foresight, and to make up for a company's reckless fondness for profits.
And yet these men stand ready to give up their lives anyway, not to save a company, but to save a people.
When we are faced with a choice in our jobs between the noble and the ignoble, how do we carry out that choice? Do we consider all the factors? Do we consider only ourselves, or others as well? Are there times when we must consider ONLY others?
Once, I worked for a company that started its meetings with, “how can we profit from this?” It made no difference whether the matter being discussed was a political event, a technical one, or some tragic, natural disaster. Human misery meant nothing to that company, only profit. I quit, because I came to the conclusion that there are some areas where we should not seek to make a profit. There is, in other words, more to life than profit.
If you don't believe my conclusion, just ask the engineers and technicians fighting the nuclear meltdown in Japan.