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The Limits of Safety 1st Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691021010
ISBN-10: 0691021015
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Editorial Reviews


Winner of the 1993 Best Book Award, Science, Technology, and Environmental Studies Section of the American Political Science Association

"An extraordinary book.... Normal accidents theory and high reliability theory took the theory of accidents out of the hands of economists and engineers and put it into the hands of organization theorists; Sagan has brought that theory of accidents much closer to maturity."--Charles Perrow, Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management

"Scott Sagan's book is nothing less than a tour de force.... It is by far the most carefully researched and painstaking study of nuclear weapons safety ever written."--Bruce G. Blair, Security Studies

"Sagan's stories also drive a wooden stake through the heart of rational choice nuclear deterrence theory. This book will make you scared ... will make you hold your children a little tighter at the end of the day."--Lee Clarke, Sociological Forum

"Sagan shows, both explicitly for nuclear weapons and implicitly for intellectual systems, that neither learning nor disasters are essentially matters of improving O-rings, safety procedures, or t-tests, as participants within those systems would like to believe. The primary adaptive action is offstage--in the background framework itself. And at that level, through sheer volume of its data, Sagan's book will shape the way that policymakers and we (with a little less confidence) understand the nuclear world."--Contemporary Sociology

"Grounded in original research in U.S. national security archives, [Limits of Safety] reveals a disturbing history of near-catastrophes in the handling of nuclear weapons and bombers. . . . This book is a significant contribution to . . . international security studies, organizational theory, and risk analysis."--American Political Science Review

From the Back Cover

"Important and refreshing . . . ranges from the general theory of accidents to how-to-do-it suggestions for any nation's nuclear planners. It is a skilful blending of social, physical, organizational and military science and is highly recommended to readers in all four fields."--David L. Sills, Nature


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Product Details

  • Series: Princeton Studies in International History and Politics
  • Paperback: 302 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1 edition (January 9, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691021015
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691021010
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #627,034 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Scott Sagan examines the safety of the US nuclear weapons command organisations employing two opposing theoretical lines of thought: the so-called high reliability school and the normal accident school.
High reliability theory holds that accidents can be prevented through good organisational design, that safety is the priority organisational objective, that redundancy enhances safety, and that trial-and-error learning from near-misses can be effective. The contrasting perspective is that of normal accident theory in which the author combines Charles Perrow's system accident theory with theories of bounded rationality, specifically the garbage can theory of organisational behaviour by Cohen, March and Olsen. This view holds that accidents are inevitable in complex and tightly coupled systems, that safety is only one of a number of competing objectives, that redundancy increases the complexity and opaqueness of the system and thereby may compromise safety (indeed the provocative view that redundancy may even cause accidents) and that political infighting is a serious barrier to organisational learning.
After having laid out the propositions and assumptions of these competing theories, the books addresses the basic question of which of the two theories is more accurate drawing from analysis of the Cuban missile crisis, the B52 Thule bomber crash, the performance of US missile warning systems, and others. This selection of case studies is a tough test for normal accident theory. One would expect that the all-pervasive and dreadful consequences of an accidental nuclear war would make nuclear weapons safety a first priority at all levels of all involved organisations. The reader is left un-reassured of this.
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With nuclear technology entering its seventh decade of use, one may have surmised that issues surrounding the safety of this technology would be well agreed upon with a consensus view of the potential pitfalls involved in nuclear security. However, as Scott Sagan reveals in his book called The Limits of Safety, the problems surrounding atomic safety lie not in the components of the system, but in the paradigm that structures our view of atomic safety. By highlighting near misses from the Cuban Missile Crisis and other events, Sagan uncovers how close the world may have come to accidental detonations and possible accidental nuclear war. Sagan interprets these events from two different perspectives concerning organizational learning: the high reliability organization learning theory (an optimistic view of nuclear safety) and the normal accident theory (more pessimistic). These perspectives present and interpret the near misses in totally different lights, as this analysis of the competing paradigms of nuclear safety is the essence of his work. Based on his research, Sagan was forced to change his prior view of nuclear safety and concludes with recommendations to make nuclear weapon systems more secure.
High reliability theory holds that accidents can be prevented through good organizational design, that safety is the priority organizational objective (development of a "high reliability culture"), that redundancy enhances safety, and that trial-and-error learning from near misses can be effective (implying use of sophisticated forms of trial-and-error organizational theory). Essentially, this model argues that accidents can be avoided given the proper set of precautions and organizational learning.
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This is an incredibly well-written and important book. It is a rare case where primary research is used to make some very fundamental points in a highly readable way. It deserves a very wide readership.

The scope of the book is clearly accounted for in its subtitle "Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons" so I do not think it is appropriate to slam it just because it did not gratify with enough technical details about nukes. Now if the titles was "Cool Nuclear Accidents That Will Blow You Away When You Read The Gory Details" well, then, I would understand a 2-star review a little more...
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Sagan examines the safety record of the Strategic Air Command, the organization responsible for US land- and air-based nuclear weapons, as a way to contrast two different theories about how organizations that deal with high-risk technologies avoid accidents. The more optimistic theory is known as the High Reliability theory: it holds that organizations can hope to prevent all accidents through a strong organizational emphasis on safety; redundancy (in both the technological and human senses); and a commitment to organizational learning. The pessimistic theory is known as the Normal Accidents theory: it holds that organizations are driven by internal politics, that greater levels of redundancy can actually cause accidents, and that what Sagan calls "tight coupling" between processes can cause small mishaps to rapidly escalate into major disasters. The book is well-written and about as riveting as a book on this topic can be, and I learned a lot about US nuclear weapons history. (It's amazing we survived the Cold War.) Sagan is considerably hampered in his choice of topic - you have to assume that more skeletons are hiding in the military's top-secret closet - and as Sagan admits, it is difficult to draw any conclusions regarding safety from near-accidents. (Is a near accident evidence that redundancy in the system works as designed, or is it evidence that, under slightly different circumstances, a major disaster could have happened? Sagan favors the latter interpretation.) Thought-provoking.
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