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Handbook of ways to cope with technological risks

Averting Catastrophe: Strategies for Regulating Risky Technologies, by Joseph G. Morone and Edward J. Woodhouse. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 202 pp. $17.95. At a time when technological catastrophe seems to be striking on many different fronts, from Bhopal to Chernobyl and beyond, this book seems especially relevant. The authors examine existing strategies in the United States for coping with five potentially severe threats to human life and the environment: toxic chemicals, nuclear power, recombinant DNA (rDNA) research, threats to the ozone layer, and the ``greenhouse'' effect posed by the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

These fall into five fairly distinct classes. Trial and error is probably the most common. Another is to use new technology but to proceed cautiously in hope of avoiding a major disaster. Active efforts to reduce the uncertainty about a particular technology - for instance, testing a dangerous chemical in a laboratory setting to see if it can be broken down into a less virulent substance - constitute a strategy as well. Two others are setting priorities (that is, determining how much risk a certain technology is worth to society) and learning from experience.

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At the bottom of all this, however, are questions that only international society as a whole can answer: How much risk is too much? When does the need for a certain product outweigh the potential hazard? And if a hazard crosses international boundaries, how will nations work together to control it?

The authors explain why some issues remain hot (nuclear power) and others cool off suddenly (recombinant DNA - rDNA - or gene-splicing). According to the authors, a great deal depends on the ability to establish a consensus in the scientific community.

In the case of rDNA, the intense antagonism that lay people felt toward this research grew out of fear that scientists would create a pernicious entity. As scientists themselves discerned the risk and saw how to limit its scope through specific guidelines and procedures, the controversy faded substantially. Although rDNA research is still challenged, the authors feel that the decrease in antagonism is significant.

Not so with nuclear power. Here scientists have not yet achieved a consensus on the dangers and how to prevent them.

Although this volume is mostly a handbook, not an in-depth survey of these problems - each of which would warrant a book of its own - the authors do make some telling points.

They conclude with a survey of what strategies are working and how, reporting that there actually is more success than failure. But they also point out places where there is room for improvement, offering some suggestions on how this might come about.

Nonpolitical books on these hard subjects - especially toxic wastes and nuclear power - are uncommon. And this one, despite its fairly limited scope and depth, has some helpful insights, tidbits, information, especially for the reader interested in gaining a general knowledge.