Science in Christian Perspective



Biblical Mandates and the Human Condition
Kenneth A. Martin
Chemistry Department
Gordon College
Wenham MA 01984

From: JASA 32 (June1980): 74-77.

In the preceding article, William Pollard offers a theological justification of nuclear power. Although the perspective is sotnewhat unique, the basic approach is similar to that taken by most proponents of this energy source. First, the choice to "go nuclear" is presented in grave terms (e.g., Alvin Weinberg's Faustian bargain). Here, Pollard describes it as "of such ultimate magnitude" as to involve "the whole earth and all its creatures." The general argument then proceeds to assert that in reality there is no choice. The nuclear option is portrayed as the only real option available. Even if serious drawbacks are acknowledged by these advocates, they are said to he overshadowed by the lack of other feasible ways to satisfy our nation's voracious energy appetite. The choice is frequently reduced to one of nuclear power or "freezing in the dark." Pollard's arguments are typical in this regard.

Ignoring all alternatives to the nuclear society, he asserts that the breeder reactor is our destiny and the sooner it is accepted, the better life will he for its all.

Specifically the author suggests the following points in defense of nuclear energy: (1) lIe maintains that nuclear power and radioactive substances are not inherently or irredeemably evil as sonic allege. Instead, ha argues that they are commonly occurring in the universe and thus should not be viewed as man-made or unnatural. (2) He then speaks of God's providence. During the past 35 years, the United States has been accumulating radioactive tailings from both nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel fabrication. Suitable as breeder fuel!, Pollard implies that the existence of these tailings represents God's provision for our energy future. (3) He asserts that we already suffer the full curse of nuclear technology (weapons) and consequently would be foolish to now turn away from the blessing (electric power generation). Pollard apparently sees no additional threat to world peace in the development and deployment of the breeder reactor. (4) Finally, he suggests that since the breeder has a "predestined" role to play in the energy future, it would be wise to gratefully accept this technology as soon as possible. Some, he says, have always feared technological advance, but such irrational fears should not be allowed to block the road to progress.

Conspicuously absent from Pollard's theological view is a discussion of human fallibility and sinfulness. Neither does he acknowledge the Christian's responsibility to look beyond the criteria of technological capability and circumstance to the requirements of justice and love in fashioning a response to the energy question. Both of these points however are crucial to any Christian view of energy technologies. What follows is a more detailed discussion of each of the preceding points.

Nuclear Energy: Natural or Unnatural?

Pollard assigns nuclear energy a major role in his theory of creation, but this assumption is apparently open to dispute. In fact, Victor F. Weisskopf, a nuclear physicist and bead of the physics department at M.I.T. has recently written:

...W e may forget about fission if we are interested only in the major features of our world. This is even more true about the chain reaction itself. Nature has not made much use of it. Recent evidence indicates that a natural chain reaction happened a billion years ago below the soil of Africa but to our knowledge it never played any role in the development of our universe1

Important or incidental to the mechanism of creation, nuclear reactions and radioactive substances unquestionably exist, It would be a mistake to view these or any other part of the created universe as inherently evil. But nucldar reactions are predominantly extraterrestrial phenomena and as such are generally inappropriate in the earthly setting. Nuclear dynamics may he "natural" to a system as broadly defined as the universe, but they are dormant on earth and as such are "unnatural" in this environment. Likewise, plutonium may be naturally occurring in some distant corner of the galaxy but in our environment this element is a deadly man-made toxin, completely incompatible with life. God may have created billions or even trillions of stellar nuclear power plants, but in His infinite wisdom, he placed them well out of human reach.

Nuclear Energy and Providence

There is great risk in depending too heavily on circumstances for God's leading. It is theologically naive to assert that the breeder is God's energy provision for the future simply because the United States has accumulated 20,000 drums of radioactive tailings for which there is currently no acceptable means of disposal. If we are to be guided by providence, might it not be more reasonable to look to the truly renewable energy sources (solar, wind, water, biomass etc.) with which God daily supplies the planet? They are certainly less susceptible to human malevolence and have been available for considerably longer than 35 years. Henry A. Bent describes God's energy provision an follows:
Had roan managed to make a mammoth nuclear reactor sited safely 93 million miles away, discovered how to store its radiant energy in a multitude of attractive forms, learned how to release that energy metabolically, and managed to keep the whole process going for millions, perhaps billions of years, he would be so pleased with his handiwork he might not seek dangerous, less attractive ways of providing power.2

Biblical norms and not providence are to be the Christian's ultimate guide. We are called of God to be members of a global community and charged with the responsibility of caring for the creation. Accordingly, Vernon Elilers has stated:

As redeemed humans we have a responsibility to work toward a just allocation of all resources, including energy resources.3

The divine design of the ecosphere embodies a marvelous and intricate pattern 0f natural processes and cycles. Our use of energy should seek, as much as possible to learn from this university of nature" so that we develop patterns of resource development and use which avoid disruption of the ecosphere.4

It is not enough to say that electricity should be generated by breeder reactors simply because it might he possible to do so. Christians must look beyond technological feasibility in their evaluation of potential energy sources. The solutions we support must be those that protect human freedom and dignity, promote peace and are consistent with the call to stewardship.

For the Christian then, energy solutions must flow from biblical mandates. Human justice requires that energy sources suitable to both developed and developing countries he pursued. The breeder reactor is not such a source. It is feasible only in a centralized society with a sophisticated electrical transmission network. Nuclear technology is complex, capital intensive and requires a small, highly trained work force, one difficult to assemble even in a highly developed society. (Consider the report of the Kemeny Commission). Exporting this technology to developing nations tends to exacerbate their problems. It increases their dependence on foreign energy companies, foreign banks and foreign governments. It compounds employment problems and generally widens the gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful, and the powerless within the country. Energy sources adaptable to small-scale, decentralized application are more appropriate to give people the ability to determine their own destiny. The United States is in a particularly important position to develop such technologies. To endorse breeder commercialization and thereby de-emphasize or ignore soft-path technologies is to show serious disregard for global needs. Christians are called to resist such self-centered behavior.

Stewardship of the earth is another biblical mandate. Every increase in energy use has a negative impact on the environment (increasing air, water and thermal pollution, carbon dioxide buildup and radiation exposure). Elimination of energy waste must then take precedence over expansion of energy supply. Extravagant, inefficient and foolish uses must be opposed. The answers to many of today's problems lie in a philosophy of "enoughness" and in harmonious collaboration with nature in selective control based on ecological understanding and the stewardship ethic.
Christians should increasingly turn their attention to the responsibilities of these and other such biblical callings in formulating responses to social and political policies that are based solely on pragmatism and expedience.

Nuclear Energy: The Blessing and The Curse

There are many risks associated with breeder technology that Pollard fails to discuss. Principal among these are the concerns of nuclear weapons proliferation and the implications of what might be called the "human factor." Both have theological antecedents. Critics charge that breeder development and deployment will increase the threat of nuclear war. If this is true, Christians, who are called by God to be peacemakers, have a moral and spiritual obligation to resist the spread of this technology. It makes little sense to try to secure a better life by using a form of energy that increases the threat of self-destruction. Furthermore, since human fallibility and sinfulness are foundational tenets of the Christian faith, believers should he extremely wary of any technology that can so magnify the error or sin of one person as to affect tens or even hundreds of thousands of people.

Proliferation: Nuclear power is historically linked to nuclear weapons and this relationship has figured decisively in its development. The following capsule history was offered by Hannes Alfven, Nobel laureate in physics as part of a lecture given at the 1978 Nobel Symposium on "Ethics for Science Policy."

At the time of the Manhattan Project scientists generally believed that all new discoveries would benefit mankind. The had conscience which many Manhattan scientists had as a result of making the nuclear bomb compelled them to believe that enormous benefits of "peaceful" nuclear energy would compensate for the terror of nuclear arnss. With this rather naive excuse the Atoms for Peace projects got enthusiastic support from the nuclear physicists who rightly had the reputation for being the brightest and most influential scientists of that era.

Mans governments reacted favorably to the pressure of the scientists, probably because the "peaceful" use of nuclear energy gave them an excellent opportunity to keep the military option open and still officially do nothing but sponsor an extremely fascinating commercial project. The cost of nuclear energy was not important-it seldom is for military or quasi-military projectsbut to make it appear commercially attractive it was claimed to be cheap.

The development of nuclear energy proceeded successfully arid almost undisturbed for a quarter of a century. Then a few biological and medical scientists blew the whistle, claiming that its environmental impact was unacceptable. The nuclear establishment immediately realized how dangerous this criticism was and tried to suppress it. How the controversy has escalated during the last ten years is well-known.

The nuclear industry, supported by most nuclear physicists (right or wrong, my science!), claims that no realistic alternatives exist; the environmentalists clams that nuclear energy is dangerous and that there are several more attractive alternatives which in reality are cheaper.

Especially important is the connection between the spread of unclear technology and the proliferation of nuclear arms. As we have noted, 25 or 35 years ago governments in some industrialized countries invested heavily in "peaceful" nuclear energy mainly because they wanted to keep the atomic bomb option open. The same is done today in several developing countries.1

President Carter's recognition of the increased risk of nuclear weapons proliferation from breeder deployment has prompted hint to call for a halt to nuclear fuel reprocessing and breeder reactor development. Henry Rowen of Stanford University and Albert Wohlstetter of the University of Chicago, both prominent academic specialists on nonproliferation issues, in 1979 completed a study commissioned by the Department of Energy and other governmental agencies "The Rowen-Wohlstetter study asserts that, over the last three years, all the legs to the argument that the connection between the fuel cycle and proliferation is slight have been cut off, including the idea that the plutonium from a power reactor is denatured to the point that it cannot he used reliably as a weapon."' In fact, last year the United States government declassified a report that it had exploded a Hiroshima-size nuclear weapon made from reactor grade plutonium, a feat the breeder proponents have previously claimed to be impossible. It is becoming increasingly clear that the export of nuclear power technology (particularly breeders) is tantamount to the export of nuclear weapons technology. Support for this policy then represents not only tacit acceptance of the normalcy of nuclear weapons, hot also the willingness to broaden and expand this awesome threat. The world has not yet seen the full curse of this technology.

Human Fallibility: The nuclear industry expresses great confidence in their complex and highly developed systems and safeguards. It is not enough however, for these systems to work in a technological paradise; they must also work in the real world. And nothing is so unsettling about real world operation as the human factor. Human ecologist Garrett Hardin of the University of California, Santa Barbara has described it this way:

A chain is no stronger than its weakest link. Systems theory and sophisticated technical devices can improve the nonluiman link in the chain leading to atomic energy. But what can he done about the human link? Very little, I submit. This is why Weinberg called for a "priesthoodsomething far more reliable, far more devoted than ordinary human beings-something there seems little possibility of creating in this agnostic age. "It wishes were horses, beggars would ride." If caretakers were priests atomic energy would be safe.7

Proponents of nuclear power frequently fail to take seriously the human condition. Many appear to believe instead that upward mobility in technology is matched by upward mobility in moral and ethical matters as well. But there is no technological solution to the problem of human malevolence. Any realistic estimate of human nature which recognizes humanity's technical and moral fallibility must conclude that nuclear technology represents a grave risk to our world.

Nuclear Energy and Fear:

Pollard seemingly would have us believe that nuclear energy is no different than any other human technology; that to fear its development and deployment is as foolish as fearing fire or electricity or the locomotive. Nuclear energy is however, quantitatively different from chemical energy as Victor Weisskepf points out:

Today physicists are dealing with cosmic processes The fission chain reaction was one of the first of these cosmic processes which led to major technological applications. Two hundred million electron volts per atom-20 million times more than the most powerful chemical reaction-is cosmic and not ordinary fire. And the first major application was a destructive one which ended World War II by killing a quarter of a million people with two booths. It is not surprising therefore that people are fearful and bewildered, and have misgivings even in regard to the more benign applications of nuclear energy.1

.Nuclear energy is not ordinary fire. It has magnified human potency to the degree that worldwide destruction is now possible. Dare we not fear such power, particularly in the hands of sinful beings? God never intended I lis people to be paralyzed by fear. Indeed he wants to set its free from senseless superstition and irrational fear. Rational fear, on the other hand, has a very legitimate place in God's design. It is given to warn of danger and it is given to motivate us to action.

The public's growing apprehension of nuclear power is increasingly grounded in reality. We have seen the power of the atomic bomb and are learning more about the risks of radiation exposure. Terrorism is a reality in our society and we realize the tremendous danger of nuclear proliferation. We have considered the implications of perpetual storage of radioactive waste and at Three Mile Island we came to the brink of a major reactor accident. Most importantly, we know the resources human beings bring to the task of managing the atom. Contrary to Pollard's assertion, it is not irrational fear we are being asked to pot aside hot sound judgment.

God has given us dominion over the earth but included in that dominion is the responsibility to make moral and spiritual choices concerning how we use our knowledge and to what ends. For humans to ignore their moral limitations is to set themselves up as gods. And to refuse to make moral judgments is to deny responsibility in dominion. We must not let our technological capacities make our decisions. May we always add wisdom to our knowledge.


1Victor F. Veisskopf, "A Peril and a Hope," Physics Today, July 1978.
2Henry A. Bent, Chemistry, vol. 51 no. 4, May 1978.
3Vernon J. Ehlers, "Soft Energy and Hard Facts-Twenty Theses," 33rd Annual Meeting, American Scientific Affiliation, August, 1978.
4Same as reference 3.
5Hammes Alfven, "Science, Prowess and Destruction," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, pp. 68-71, March 1979.
6Luther J. Carter, "Relaxation Seen in Nonproliferation Policy," Science, vol. 206, pp. 32-36, October 5, 1979.
7Garrett Hardin, "Living with the Faustian Bargain," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, pp. 25-29, November 1976.