Science in Christian Perspective



Human Responsibility and Human Liberation
Robert Case
Department of Mathematics
Northeastern University
Boston MA


From: JASA 32 (June1980): 79-83.

"The theologian is concerned about the human being as a subject with, freedom and responsibility before the mystery of if God."  Karl Rahner.

The present article undertakes a discussion of human responsibility and freedom before God in relation to commercial nuclear energy, and concludes that the evidence suggests that the nuclear program in its present form is cannot he reconciled with fundamental theological conclusions. Two major currents of theological thought are of special importance in this invest1gatining: a renewed awareness of human responsibility for the care of creation on the one hand, and a deepened perception of the reliious significance of the process of human liberation on the other.

 While Christian theologians have been especially active in dealing with these dimensions,1 it is expected that both will be acknowledged to he grounded in the Judaeo-Christian biblical tradition.

In particular, these remarks are also intended as a response to Dr. William Pollard's article, "A Theological View of Nuclear Energy," in which the author argues that we should overcome our fears of nuclear energy, stressing that the conquering of fear is one of the principal accomplishments of the Sinai Covenant, wherein Moses vanquished the terror produced by the mountain's volcanic fire. Further, Dr. Pollard urges its to see nuclear energy as "God's energy choice" for the whole of creation, pointing out that the sun's energy is a product of nuclear fusion, and the galaxies are populated with such natural "nuclear power plants." Moreover, as regards nuclear energy from reactors, "man has it and has no other choice but to accommodate himself to the reality of his situation."

Nuclear Energy Not Inherently Evil

There are two preliminary points that should he stated categorically. The first is that opposition to commercial nuclear power ought not to he construed as opposition to science or to the development of technology. Science is a basic human enterprise of great significance and of potentially immense benefit to humanity, as a whole. The opposition to nuclear power discussed here is a criticism based on the historical and social conditions of a particular industry. The second point, and one which is related to this view of science, is that nuclear energy is not to he thought of as inherently evil; it is, rather, human beings who are capable of sin and of violations of justice. This article seeks to discuss criteria for evaluating whether the power of the atom is being abused by persons, and by institutions composed of persons. In this sense, one can begin to understand the ways in which scientific work can be misused to render it contrary to human welfare and the development of human community.

"Natural" Nuclear Energy

One step in making this evaluation is to regain a sense of perspective about the place of "natural" nuclear energy in human evolution, both cosmically and historically. The fact that plutonium and other transuranic elements were present in great abundance millions of years ago should not at all imply that they must have any particular role today. In fact the absence of plutonium in "recent" history made possible the evolution of many species, humans included, for which this element is almost incredibly toxic.2 Further, our understanding that the suit is a "fusion reactor" must not be separated from the acknowledgment that it is 93 million miles from earth, a providential distance.

Human Stewardship
The fundamental relationship of human beings to the biosphere-the thin hand of water, earth and atmosphere that is the Creator's gift and which marvellously supports the multiplicity and variety of life-is set forth in the recent Policy Statement of the National Council of Churches:

Human beings are made by God as persons-in-nature. co-matures in reciprocal relationships with everything else that God has made, As an integral part of creation, humanity shares in its finite nature. Only after making this basic affirmation does the Bible declare that humans are distinctive loran's' they are created in God's image. Persons are unique in their capacity to respond to God in faith arid hope, to their h,ouan neighbors with love, and to the non-human part of creation with respect and responsible care.3

Thus humans have a "stewardship," one which assumes immense meaning in terms of the potential technological impact on the biosphere, both globally and for hundreds of generations to come. A technology, therefore, which poses a risk of irreversible global damage demands enormous caution in deciding about its use. The structure and history of commercial nuclear energy present evidence of fundamental problems that require solution before responsible stewardship could approve continuation of this program on a commercial scale.

A typical nuclear fission plant contains an amount of radioactive material which exceeds the fallout of a thousand Hiroshinta-type weapons. The fear is not that these plants will explode like an atomic bomb, but a large portion of this material is gaseous and could easily be carried by the wind for many miiles if accidentally released. Lethal to humans in its immediate path, the dispersed radioactivity would cause long-term cancers and genetic damage. The accident at Harrisburg has raised this spectre in the minds of people the world over.

Radioactive Waste

Further, no safe way has yet been devised to dispose of the millions of gallons and thousands of metric tons of deadly radioactive waste. These wastes, created when spent fuel is removed from the reactor, are among the most dangerous cancer-causing substances known, remaining harmful for centuries and in some cases millenia. In the short history of nuclear power, numerous leaks of both high-level and low-level (materials, clothing, and tools used in connection with the nuclear cycle) materials have occurred. Thirdly, present safeguards are inadequate to keep plutonium from being hi-jacked by terrorists or obtained by any nation which possesses reprocessing facilities.4 India showed by its 1974 nuclear detonation that "the peaceful atom" can he made to yield weapons. These three elements: danger of catastrophic meltdown and release of radioactivity, lack of solution to the waste-storage problem, and threat of nuclear weapons proliferation from the worldwide marketing of nuclear reactors-are serious structural problems of the nuclear industry.

History of Nuclear Energy

The actual history of nuclear energy, moreover, is studded with mishaps, operator errors, design defects, shoddy construction practices, quality control corruption, and security lapses.," Operating reactors have shown a lower than advertised reliability; new reactor models have been marketed before being properly tested and analyzed; an entire industry has been constructed without having a complete plan-both as regards waste storage and as regards shortages of uranium, a nonrenewable fuel;, ambitious efforts have been made to expand nuclear sales into nations which could ill afford an expensive new technology which does not meet the basic needs of the population.

In short, the structural problems of the nuclear industry have been complemented by a historical record which has served to undermine popular confidence that the biosphere will be protected. Finally, yet another problem is described in a remarkable paper of Professor Jean Rossel, delivered at the July, 1979, conference at M.I.T. on Faith, Science, and the Future: the slow and steady radioactive pollution of the biosphere that is a concomitant of the nuclear program, even under the assumption of no mishaps.7 It would seem that the kind of ahistorical technological optimism evidenced in Dr. Pollard's article is no match for the weight of all these burdens. A sense of responsible stewardship is encouraging Americans everywhere to echo the Policy Statement of the National Council of Churches: "We support a national policy which will not need to utilize nuclear fission."

Is Nuclear Energy Necessary?

For many people, the last remaining argument in favor of nuclear energy is that it is "necessary," particularly in view of supply shortages, notably as regards oil. Some have claimed that an enormous plutonium breeder reactor program is the way to meet these needs. But one should notice that a 1000 megawatt light water (uraniun) reactor must operate for thirty years to supply the fuel for a 1500 megawatt breeder reactor. In the year 2010, a program of substitution would require 4500 light water reactors in operation to allow 6000 breeders in the year 2040. Even for this staggering program-with all its health, military, and civil liberties implications-the total amount of energy generated in 2040 would be only 50% of that now being produced by petroleum and a mere 10% of the extrapolated energy needs of the year 2040! Further, studies by Vance Taylor conclude that the economics of the situation forbids any significant substitution of electricity for oil, as for example in home beating.8

Such "necessity" arguments for nuclear energy all rest on the increasingly shaky premise that the energy problem is fundamentally a supply problem, Emphasis on supply has only exacerbated the problem, however, leading to exponential problems of shortages, costs, and pollution of the environment. On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence that the energy problem is a productivity or efficiency problem. To continue the irrational wastefulness of the past generation while searching for a supply-solution is the height of impracticality. In fact, Americans have obtained 2.5 times as much energy in the past seven years through efficiency as they have through supply-expansion, including the Alaskan pipeline.9 A number of recent investigations conclude that efficiency over the short term is the only solution to the energy problem,10 and, coupled with timely introduction of solar-based technologies, society can move to a hightechnology solar civilization in the 21st century.11

In far too many cases, support for nuclear power does not represent the overcoming of fear, but a hand-wringing fatalism.12 "When God decides my time is up, it is up and if it comes through radioactivity, that is God's will, too." This fatalism has nothing to do with the Judaeo-Christian teaching of God's providence, and serves to give God, as they say, a very "hum rap. This attitude removes people from their history, and immersion in history is essential for liberation.

Human Liberation

The theme of the person and community as subjects of history rather than objects, as involved in the process of human liberation, is rapidly becoming central to theological thought. For too long, Judaism and Christianity have been drained of much of their historical dimensions, when in fact they are deeply historic faiths. Both are immersed in the process of liberation, proclaiming that to know God is to do the works of freedom and justice. Liberation of the Children of Israel from Egypt by the hand of God is-together with the Covenant which is its complement-the central theme of the Bible. And Jesus' description of his mission is to he understood precisely in terms of this tradition: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people." (Luke 4:18-19)

The history and structure of commercial nuclear power reveal much when viewed from the standpoint of human liberation. For the history of nuclear power has been a history of oppression, and its present structure is one of oppression as well. Hundreds of uranium Joiners have contracted lung cancer from the radon-products of improperly ventilated mines.13 Uranium mining involves the exploitation of the lands of native peoples of the United States, Namibia arid Australia. Much of this land is sacred territory, and the willingness of nuclear interests to continue to assault the cultural integrity of aboriginal peoples is wholly unethical.

But the most profound oppression is imposed when human beings are treated as irrelevant, as secondary to the system of energy production through nuclear fission. If one turns to the record of the Three Mile Island accident, one finds Roger Mattson, official of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission charged with safety in the Harrisburg area, telling Washington: "I do not know why you are not moving people . . . I have told them here and I am telling you ... we should he moving people." Millions have drawn the conclusion that the safety of the industry has been placed before the safety of people. Nuclear energy is valued more highly than persons."14

Anxiety about radiation is an important part of the process of liberation in relation to nuclear power. Just as an ahistorical technological optimism can lead to fatalism, radiation anxiety can grow into creative hope. Given the point of evolution at which the human race finds itself today, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls such anxiety "the wisdom of the body."15 It is a clear message that it is possible for humans to develop new "spiritual organs" in order to deal with a uniquely dangerous and irreversible threat which they cannot feel, hear, taste, see, or smell. Such anxiety offers a chance for survival, for liberation.

The theologian Hans Jonas invites us to consider that we are at a new ethical situation as humans, a situation where our response must be proportioned to the depth of the damage we can do to the biosphere.16 Such an ethical response seems to he taking shape across the globe in the form of the antinuclear movement. It would be a misreading to see this movement as negative. A creative hope is at the heart of the opposition to nuclear power, one that set's the possibilities of a new system of energy and of industry. The resilience of human beings being liberated through hope is bringing into view new possibilities and new realities expressive of the human values that have been notably absent from the nuclear power program and its progenitor, the bomb. The struggle for liberation in regard to nuclear power and nuclear weapons may well represent the crucial theological issue of our age.

Persons everywhere are beginning to implement an energy system which is hospitable to international justice, has a rich and responsible relationship with the biosphere, and can move the hunman community along the path, as Dante put it, of "the love that moves the sun and the other stars."


'Examples include: A Theology of Liberation, by Cnstavo Cotierrez, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 10545, 1971; Christology at the crossroads, by Jon Sobrin,Orhix Books, 1978. For a more extended discussion of technical and theological issues involved in nuclear energy, see Nuclear Energy: The Morality of Our National Policy, by William M. Millard, Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1779 Church St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20036.
2Plutonium Re-cycle: the Fateful Step,'' by ArthurTainplin and Thomas Cochrar, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November, 1974.
3Ethical Implications of Energy Production and Use, adopted by the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., May 11, 1979, NCCC Energy Project, 475 Riverside Drive, (Boom 572), New York, New York 10027,
4Atomic Bombs Everywhere," by Daniel Yergin, Atlantic Magazine, April, 1977,
5The Nugget File, Excerpts from,, the government's specialftile on nuclear lower plant accidents and safety defects, comments and editing by Robert Pollard, Union of Concerned Scientists, 1208 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Ma, 12138
6The Nuclear Stalemate," by I. C. Bupp, in Energy Future: Report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business 7The Social Bisks of Large-scale Nuclear Energy Programs," hby Jean Rossel, Conference on Faith, Science arid the Future, Cambridge, Ma, July 12-24, 1979. World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland.
8Energy: The Easy Path, by Vince Taylor, Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, Ma, 1979
9The Easy Path Energy Plan, by Vince Taylor, Union of Concerned Scientists, 1979
10The Easy Path Energy Plan, Vince Taylor, and see also A Low Energy Strategy for the United Kingdom, ed. Gerald Leach, International Institute for Environment and Development, London, 1979, which provides evidence that the gross national product of England can be tripled without any appreciable increase in the production of energy.
11Solar Sweden, Johsnsson and Steen, which develops a plan for 100% of Sweden's energy by 2015 from solar sources, supporting a standard of living for the entire population now enjoyed by only 10% of the inhabitants. Swedish Information Service, 825 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022, summarized in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October, 1979
12For examples 0f choices made to halt development of particular technologies, see Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena, by Primack and Von Hippel, Meridian Books, 1974, esp. chapter 11, "Matthew Meselson and Federal Policy on Biological and Chemical Warfare" arid Chapter 2, "The Supersonic Transport."
13The Atomic Establishment, by PeterMetzger, Pantheon Books, 1972
14For a discussion of contemporary forms of idolatry, see An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, by William Stringfellow, Word Books, 1973
15 "On the Nuclear Altar." by Robert Jay Litton, New York Times. July 26, 1979, 1), A19
16"Technology and Responsibility, Reflections on the new tasks of ethics, By Hans Jones, Social Research 1973 97:1:. pp,11-54