Science in Christian Perspective



Perspective on Energy Technology Choices
Everett R. Irish 
Richland, Washington


From: JASA 32 (June1980): 112-114.


I am concerned that the ASA maintain its credibility through a balanced treatment of energy technology issues. My concern arises from the current polarized situation in our society which jeopardizes the timely availability of needed energy for the future. In this article this concern and its rationale are articulated along with a challenge to ASA members as scientists and engineers working in energy-related fields.

Having worked in the mid-1940's in Boulder, Colorado on one of the first demonstrations of solar house heating, I have a continuing interest in how solar energy can be appropriately used to meet our energy needs. Having spent 24 years in the nuclear field, I have similar interests regarding nuclear energy. And having spent 6 years in seeking to use science for the benefit of humankind in other ways, I gained a perspective about societal problems in general; as a result of this latter experience, my personal credo about research on complex societal problems was developed and articulated.1 These experiences and beliefs will be reflected as some concepts and ideas from the Scriptures and secular viewpoints on energy technology choices are presented.

Biblical Guidance

A theological view of the relationships of man and nature to God2 is necessary for a meaningful perspective of the situations that face humankind today. I believe such a view leads to at least three fundamental ethical principles:

1. Our responsibility to be stewards of the earth's environment and resources that belong to God, not to us. This responsibility is given in Genesis in the creation (vs. 1:26-30) and garden (vs. 2:15) stories. It is important to recognize the "tending" aspects of she garden story or the "dominion" aspects of the creation story could be incorrectly interpreted to be the cause of a perceived ecological crisis.3 This stewardship responsibility includes both conserving and using resources prudently, in the interests of both the present and future generations.

2. Our responsibility to pay special attention to the poor and needy people of the world, as given in Proverbs 31:9 and many other places in both she Old and New Testaments. History shows that without adequate energy available, the poor and needy of the world suffer the first and most.

3. Our responsibility to do all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, as given in Colossians 3:17 and elsewhere.

Fulfillment of our individual responsibilities requires us so "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33)... Righteousness in the Bible has at least three dimensions: legal, moral and social.4 Legal righteousness is justification, a right relationship with God. Moral righteousness is that righteousness of character and conduct which pleases God, an inner righteousness of heart, mind and motive. Social righteousness is concerned with "seeking man's liberation from oppression, together with she promotion of civil rights, justice in the law courts, integrity in business dealings and honor in home and family affairs . . Christians are committed to hunger for righteousness in the whole human community as something pleasing so a righteous God."

Secular Perspective

We are living at a point in history when the world is rapidly depleting its natural resources. One vital aspect of our society that is being severely affected is that of energy production. Our finite supplies of non-renewable energy-producing fuels (especially petroleum and natural gas) are being depleted at a rapid rate. Humankind must turn to strict energy conservation and other energy sourccs.5,6

The ethic of conservation appropriately is being emphasized throughout our society in order to reduce our energy consumption and resource use. Savings could reach a limit of 30-40% of classic (1972) energy projections.7 Such significant conservation would require alterations of our lifestyles and practices in generating and using energy. Whereas some of these changes would certainly be salutary, others could result in adverse effects. Even with significant conservation measures, fuels other than petroleum and natural gas will be needed to supply our energy requirements.8

Production of energy will likely require the use of all feasible methods, i.e.,
• Renewable - Hydroelectric and other solar (direct thermal, wind, biomass, etc.)
• Fossil fuels - Coal, natural gas, petroleum and synthetic fuel derivatives.
• Nuclear - Fission, geothermal and potentially fusion.

The technologies to assure the availability of needed energy in the future are being developed and/or improved. The challenges we face are to use the above energy sources prudently and in consideration of the overall potentials and limitations of each energy source.

All energy sources have their associated benefits, costs, risks and uncertainties that must be evaluated as objectively as possible, consistent with she amount of information available, so that they can be properly compared for applicability to meet specific needs. Much is known about she energy sources that produce most of our energy today, i.e., hydropower, coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear fission. However, comparatively little is known about she nonconventional sources although the situation is improving. For example, comparative costs for coal and nuclear power systems for generation of electrical energy are quite well understood.9 Benefit/cost information on solar energy technologies is much less developed; however, at least one significant study comparing environmental effects and benefits of solar energy technologies with coal has been made.10

With regard to risks to public health and safety, it must be recognized that all energy sources and production systems have associated risks; none are risk free. In reality, "no-risk thinking" may create the highest risks.11 Comparisons of risks likewise can be made much better between coal and nuclear power systems12 than between coal or nuclear and solar because of the advanced state of knowledge and large amount of research on the former systems and the minimal amount on solar systems to date. In risk assessments of various energy sources and comparisons among them it is necessary that entire fuel cycles or systems be considered; otherwise, significant errors can he introduced by the oversights.

The study of risks frequently consider only physical and biological risks. For a complete risk assessment both of these and social, psychological, aesthetic and related risks should be considered so gain an overall perspective. Even though the technology for such a complete risk assessment is lacking, qualitative considerations are important. For example, in the context of this paper, if adequate energy supplies may not be available to meet future needs, the risks of unemployment, deprivation and social unrest need to be evaluated with candor. At the risk of stepping out of my field of expertise, I suggest that the oppression of unemployment and resulting deprivation would lead to increasing gaps between rich and poor, people and nations; the affluent can afford to change lifestyles more than the poor but also are free not to do so. Social unrest from looting during power outages and violence in gas lines to war over resources has been experienced. In the context of a broad discussion of bioethical problems and priorities related to nuclear energy'1 three different options and their respective consequences for the future are described; contemplation of these scenarios, spelled out in greater detail by E. L. Zebroski of the Electric Power Research Institute, reinforces the concerns expressed above. Another publieationl4 presents similar ideas on social hazards from a pronuclear viewpoint in a popular format.

Communication among people and sectors of our society is becoming increasingly difficult because of polarizations Not only is the topic of energy production becoming more political than technical, it is plagued by a moral problem involving dishonesty and deception in communications. There is always a tendency to oversell one's own viewpoint, sometimes with hidden motives. What is needed, in view of the impending crisis society faces, are honest and open dialogues on benefits and risks and uncertainties of all kinds of energy sources so that the choices of the future can be made as well as possible. Evidence of the result of dishonesty and deception, i.e., lack of trust. was gained in a mail-out survey on nuclear knowledge and nuclear attitudes:15

"With respect to four information sources the news media, government agencies, utility companies, and environmental groups general sample respondents, on the average, expressed distrust in the four sources more than they expressed trust in them. The least amount of distrust was shown toward government agencies, and the most distrust was shown toward environmental groups. Nuclear neighbors expressed slight trust in government agencies and distrust in other sources, especially environmental groups. Environmentalists expressed strong trust in environmental groups and strong distrust in utility companies."

Another dimension of communications was studied through a comparative analysis of network television news coverage of coal, nuclear power and solar stories from 1972 to 1977.16

"While a large number of the stories presented the pro and con side of the technology story, virtually all one-sided solar stories were pro solar, and virtually all one-sided nuclear power stories were anti nuclear . . . . In terms of the balance of benefit/ cost discussions, for solar power the benefit discussion outweighed the cost discussion about ten to one, while for nuclear and coal the cost discussion outweighed the benefit discussion about four to one."

These observations support what many of us have experienced, the optimistic view of a new technology and an associated oversell. The vice versa situation is also familiar to us!

Primary reasons for the polarization over nuclear power are conflicts of values having to do with lifestyles17 and differences in perceptions regarding desirable social-institutional and political conditions:13

"Pro-nuclear respondents place significantly more importance than antinuclear respondents (in a mail-out survey)
on the values of a comfortable life, family security, and national security. Antinuclear respondents place significantly more importance than pro-nuclear respondents on the values of a world of beauty and equality. A comparison of the value systems of these respondents with the value systems of the American public indicated that pro-nuclear respondents have value systems more like the 'average' American, whereas antinuclear respondents ... have value systems somewhat more like individuals who have been active in other social movements, such as the civil rights movement."

As an individual, I also have conflicts because I value both the pro-nuclear and antinuclear sets of values summarized above! I wish that the nuclear fuel cycle did not have some of the undesirable features of radioactivity just as I wish that solar energy were not so diffuse and variable. (Except the diffuseness permits me to live and the variability enhances my lifestyle!) But my wishes do not change the realities of the situations. Nicholas Edigee, President of the Canadian Nuclear Association, expressed my sentiments precisely when he said he finds it "unfortunate" that discussions of "policy related to the generation of electricity by utilizing steam from a uranium-fired boiler" are used "by certain individuals as yet another opportunity to engage in a lifestyle debate."18


Two prominent solar energy researchers, Margorie and Aden Meinel, "caution us against becoming entrenched within simplistic versions of the multiple problems which surround any energy option. They also urge us to bury the polarized rhetoric growth vs. no growth, solar energy vs. nuclear energy, soft path vs. hard path, etc . . . . Abandoning the polarized rhetoric is not enough. We must also recognize that the most paralyzing, debilitating, and manipulable human emotion is fear-fear begotten from ignorance."13 We would do well to remember Madame Marie Curie's words:

"Nothing in life is to be feared; it is to be understood."

As scientists and engineers, we have the responsibility and opportunity to help the public understand the complex technical issues of the day, overcome fears of the unknown and face the future with hope, not despair. Clear, balanced, technically-correct communications from us are vital.


1Irish, Everett R., "Research on Complex Societal Problems," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, March 1974, pp. 3-6.
2Pollard, William G., "A Theological View of Nuclear Energy," Nuclear News, February 1979, pp. 79-83.
3White, Lynn, Jr. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science, 155, March 10, 1967, pp. 1203-1207.
4Stott, John R. W. Christian Counter-Culture, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, InterVarsity Press, 1978, p. 45.
5Bethe, H. A., "The Necessity of Fission Power," Scientific American, 234, January 1976, pp. 21-31.
6 Pierre, C. and L. Zaleski, "Energy Choices for the Next 15 Years; A View from Europe," Science, 202, March 2, 1979, pp. 849851.
7Rose, David J., et. al., "Nuclear Power-Compared to What?' American Scientist, 64, May-June 1976, pp. 291-299.
8"Questions on the Future of Nuclear Power: Implications and Tradeoffs." EMD-79-56, U.S. General Accounting Office, May 21. 1979.
9Rossin, A. D. and T. A. Rieck, "Economies of Nuclear Power," Science. 201, August 18, 1978, pp. 582-590.
10 Lawrence, Kathryn A. "A Review of the Environmental Effects and Benefits of Selected Solar Energy Technologies," SERI/ TP-53-l 14. Solar Energy Research Institute, Boulder, September 1978.
11Wildavsky, Aaron. "No Risk Is the Highest Risk of All," Ameri can Scientist, 67, January-February 1979, pp. 32-37,
l12Hamilton, L. D. and A. S. Marine, "Health and Economic Costs of Alternative Energy Sources." IAEA Bulletin, Volume 20, Number 4, Vienna, August 1978, pp. 44-58.
13Maxey, Margaret N.. "Nuclear Electricity: Bioethical Problems and Priorities," Chemical Engineering Progress, September 1978, pp. 26-38.
14Beckman, Petr, The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear, Golem Press. Boulder, Colorado, 1976.
15Nealey, Stanley M. and William L. Rankin, Nuclear Knowledge and Nuclear Attitudes: Is Ignorance Bliss? B-HARC-41 1-002, Battelle Human Affairs Research Centers. Seattle, October 1978.
16Rankin. William I.. and Stanley M. Nealey, A Comparative Analysis of Network Television Ness's Coverage of Nuclear Power, Coal and Solar Stories, B-HARC-4l 1-005. Battelle Human Affairs Research Centers, Seattle, February 1979.
17Rankin. William I.. and Stanley M, Nealey, The Relationship of Human Values and Energc Beliefs to Nuclear Power Attitude, B-HARC-41 1-007, Battelle Human Affairs Research Centers, Seattle, November 1978.
18"Perspective on Radwaste Management" Nuclear Fuel, December 11, 1978, pp. 5-6.