Can it ever be justifiable to give a machine control over a risky activity? When? What happens when something goes wrong?

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Can it ever be justifiable to give a machine control over a risky

activity? When? What happens when something goes wrong?

In this essay I intend to discuss whether or not it is right to give a machine control over a risky activity. Incorrect decisions by a computer can cause death, but so could human control. Which is riskier?

Nuclear Power

One of the scariest things about nuclear power is when something goes wrong - an accident occurs. They utilize radioactive materials to make power but in the event of an accident, thousands of people can get hurt. If radiation is released into the environment people die. Two of the most famous nuclear accidents occurred at Three Mile Island, and at the Chernobyl plant. In both of these accidents, a meltdown occurred. This is where the molten fuel rods melt through the bottom of the reactor and then about 20 metres into the earth beneath the plant. The uranium reacts with groundwater forming explosions. The radioactive steam can then affect nearby areas.


The Chernobyl accident took place on April 26, 1986. The accident happened because normal operations were suspended due to an experiment taking place. Normal safety guidelines were disregarded. Too many control rods had been removed, thus creating more heat. The coolant levels had also been reduced, so the reactor got very hot. Due to the heat, the fuel rods shattered, causing two explosions. The top of the reactor lifted off, and the containment around the reactor was broken. Air entering the core reacted with the graphite to form carbon monoxide. This is flammable and caught fire, emitting radioactive smoke into the surrounding area.

According to the Ukranian Radiological Institute, over 2500 deaths resulted from the incident. The site is not safe and people risk death by entering it. Hundreds of people worked to quell the reactor fire and the escape of radioactive material. A sarcophagus, erected from 300,000 metric tons of concrete, has built around the reactor to contain the radioactive waste. However, as the structure is now over 16 years old, several flaws have been found in it. This could be catastrophic, as radioactive dust could rain down on the surrounding areas.  

The cause of the accident was operator error - i.e. workers not being familiar with the reactor. Normal safety guidelines were not followed. Regulations required that fifteen control rods always remain in the reactor. At the time of the accident, less than 10 were present.

This is a clear example of where a computer can be used in a risky situation. Humans should not have carried out experiments on a nuclear reactor. Now nearly all nuclear power stations are computer controlled and operated. Teams of well trained professionals are required to ensure that the computerized machines function correctly. These professionals must be able to take control in the event of problems occurring. In a well designed program, safety guidelines should not be able to be broken. They are put in place for a reason. Experiments can be simulated.

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Three Mile Island

The Three Mile Island accident took place on March 28, 1979 and is still considered to be the worst nuclear disaster in American history. One of the reactors experienced a partial meltdown but luckily did not break the containment systems. As with the Chernobyl incident, the main reason for the accident was human error.

The failure of one of the controlling coolant flow valves caused the amount of cooling water entering the reactor to decrease causing an increase in the core temperature. The computerized controlling systems engaged and scrammed the reactor ...

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