Skip to content

The Aviation Paradox: Why We Can ‘Know’ Jetliners But Not Reactors

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)229-248
Number of pages20
Issue number2
Early online date7 Jun 2017
DateAccepted/In press - 11 Oct 2016
DateE-pub ahead of print - 7 Jun 2017
DatePublished (current) - Jun 2017


Publics and policymakers increasingly have to contend with the risks of complex, safety-critical technologies, such as airframes and reactors. As such, ’technological risk’ has become an important object of modern governance, with state regulators as core agents, and ’reliability assessment’ as the most essential metric. The Science and Technology Studies (STS) literature casts doubt on whether or not we should place our faith in these assessments because predictively calculating the ultra-high reliability required of such systems poses seemingly insurmountable epistemological problems. This paper argues that these misgivings are warranted in the nuclear sphere, despite evidence from the aviation sphere suggesting that such calculations can be accurate. It explains why regulatory calculations that predict the reliability of new airframes cannot work in principle, and then it explains why those calculations work in practice. It then builds on this explanation to argue that the means by which engineers manage reliability in aviation is highly domain-specific, and to suggest how a more nuanced understanding of jetliners could inform debates about nuclear energy.

    Research areas

  • Engineering, Reliability, Risk, Safety, Regulation, Technology assessment, Nuclear energy, Civil aviation, Jetliners, Reactors

Download statistics

No data available



  • Full-text PDF (accepted author manuscript)

    Rights statement: This is the author accepted manuscript (AAM). The final published version (version of record) is available online via Springer at Please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.

    Accepted author manuscript, 417 KB, PDF-document


View research connections

Related faculties, schools or groups