Science in Christian Perspective

            A Critical Discussion

A Theological View of NuclearEnergy
William C. Pollard
Oak Ridge TN

From: JASA 32 (June1980): 70-74
Dr. Pollard is a coordinator of the Institute for Energy Analysis, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Oak Ridge, TN. He was formerly executive director of ORAU and to a fellow of the Americas Nuclear Society. He is also an Episcopal priest of 25 years' service, a ministry he continues to practice in retirement. Reprinted from Nuclear News, Feb. 1979, pp. 79-83

Responses from:  Kenneth A. Martin, Vernon J. Ehlers, Robert Case, Ellen Winchester, Bernard L. Cohen
Everett R. Irish, Margaret N. Maxey, David L. Willis
Rejoinder from: Pollard

Nuclear energy has been discussed most extensively in terms of its scientific, technical arid engineering aspects. More recently, with the increasing public controversy over nuclear electric power, the political, sociological, and ethical aspects of nuclear energy have been extensively discussed. There remains a third category, the theological, of important relevance to this controversy, and this has not been discussed at all in any systematic or primary way. Such a discussion, if it is to be undertaken at all, roust approach its subject from an explicit recognition of the relationship of man and nature to God and the insights and requirements that that relationship entails.

The terms of reference of such a discussion are normally excluded under accepted canons of scientific discourse. The point of view, methodology, and presuppositions of theology have generally seemed alien to science, and a discourse on any subject from a theological perspective has been properly excluded from journals addressed to a scientific or technological audience. Now that the nuclear controversy has become a major concern of the World Council and National Council of Churches and numerous other religious groups, however, it may be in order to indicate to such an audience how the controversy appears when viewed theologically, as distinct from ethically.

The basis for this discussion is the understanding of nature, man, and God revealed through the historic experience of Israel as witnessed in the literature that came to constitute the Hebrew Bible and the Alexandrian Greek Septuagint. Thus, it confines itself to theological categories derived from the religious heritage common to the three great monotheistic world religions. Theological aspects specific to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would need to he covered in separate essays. A theological perspective on nuclear power derived from Hinduism, Buddhism, and other oriental religions would be quite different, and the contrast between such a treatment and the one developed here would he interesting and informative.

Nuclear Energy in Creation

From the first use of fire by primitive man to the middle of this century, the only fuels available to man for heat and work have been chemical. For a long time the primary fuel was wood and dung; then came peat and coal, and finally oil and natural gas. Burned with the oxygen in the air, these fuels have been man's primary source of energy apart from direct solar heat and wind power. Through long use, they have seemed a natural and normal part of the world as God made it and a universal component of all creation. In contrast, the recent employment of nuclear energy in electric power plants seems to many an abnormal and unnatural intrusion by technological man-a man-made addition to the created order as God designed it. Seen in this way, nuclear energy and its products, such as radioactive wastes and plutonium, are looked upon by many as contrary to God's purpose in creation and inherently and irredeemably evil.

This way of judging the status of energy in creation is the result of a limited perspective. In the universe as a whole the situation is just the reverse. From the perspective of God's creation as a whole, an ordinary fire is an extraordinary and exceedingly rare and abnormal phenomenon. It can occur only on a planet with a long evolutionary history of living things having an atmosphere containing free oxygen. In our solar system it is only possible on the earth. None of the other planets or planetary satellites have any of the ingredients needed for a fire. One would probably have to travel at least a
thousand light-years away from the earth before en-countering another planet on which organic fuels and free oxygen necessary for an "ordinary" fire would be available. In such a journey, however, nuclear energy would be everywhere encountered. Our sun is a natural nuclear power plant, and there are over a hundred billion other main sequence stars like it scattered throughout our galaxy. The billions of other galaxies similar to our Milky Way are equally thickly populated with them. Indeed, a large fraction of all the matter in the universe is incorporated in such "nuclear power plants." It is a sobering thought that God has made more of them than he has anything else.

It is true that this statement applies to fusion energy and not to fission, whose energy is released in the universe only following stellar explosions. But a universe from which nuclear power had been "outlawed" would be a dead universe, with no warmth, light, or life in it, and devoid of any creative potential.

Nuclear energy is the universal, common, and natural kind of energy in creation as a whole. Indeed, the other forms of energy are all derived from it. All the wood, coal, oil, and gas man has ever burned came from our natural nuclear power plant, the sun, through photosynthesis-so too with water power and wind power. Without realizing it until this century, we have really been dependent on nuclear energy all along. Now that we have begun to generate electricity directly in nuclear power plants of our own design and construction, we are merely tapping directly the universal energy source for all of creation that previously we have used only indirectly and derivatively.

Similar considerations apply to radioactive wastes. Less than a hundred million years before the birth of our solar system, an immense and cataclysmic explosion of a collapsing star, a supernova, generated enormous quantities of highly radioactive materials of all the chemical elements through thorium, uranium, and plutonium to californium. The radioactive wastes from this explosion were spewed out into the surrounding gas and dust from which the sun and its family of planets were formed four and a half billion years ago. The earth and all the other planets were loaded throughout with radioactive waste at their formation. Most of the original radioactivities, including plutonium, have long since decayed to stable elements in the intervening four and one-half billion years, but some with half-lives of a billion years or more, such as uranium, thorium, and potassium-40, are still present. The heat generated by their decay has given the earth's crust its plasticity and geologic dynamism, evident in the drift of continents, in earthquakes, and, most visibly, in volcanoes. When we bury deep in the earth's crust the radioactive wastes we generate, we shall not be adding anything foreign to it, nor will we ever add more than a minute fraction of what is already there. True, for a few centuries our wastes from nuclear power will be very much more intensely radioactive than their surroundings, but after some thousand years they will have decayed to a level comparable to that of natural radioactive ore bodies, and eventually they become less radioactive than the original uranium from which they were produced. Radioactive waste too is an integral part of the created order.
Plutonium is a natural and normal chemical element in the periodic table of the elements, with the same status in creation as silver, lead, or uranium. Here and there throughout the universe, in occasional supernova explosions, it is being made all the time. In at least one instance we know that one and three-quarters billion years ago, when the fissionable isotope of uranium of atomic weight 235 was four times as abundant as it is now, several natural "light-water reactors" intermittently went critical and generated a ton or more of plutonium. 1,2 This was in what is now the country of Gabon in Africa. Such natural fission reactors must have been a frequent occurrence in earlier stages of the earth's history. Once it is produced, plutonium radioactively transforms into uranium, essentially completely in less than a half million years. As a result, apart from roan's nuclear activities, plutonium does not occur in the earth's crust now except in miniscule quantities generated all the time in uranium by cosmic ray neutrons. But this does not make it "man-made" or "un-natural."

One cannot reject nuclear energy or its products as unnatural or inherently evil and still retain the biblical doctrine of creation. In that doctrine God is "maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible," as the Creed of Nicca states it, or as it is said even more emphatically in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel:3 "All things were mode through him, and without him was not anything mode that was mode" (John 1:3). To do otherwise is to adopt a Manichaean view of creation, or a Zoroastrian dualism, in which the good parts of nature are created by God and the remainder by an evil power co-equal with him but independent of him. Moreover, in the universe as a whole, nuclear energy is clearly a great good, and so is to be accepted in the words of the First Epistle to Timothy, "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to he rejected if it is received with thanksgiving" (4:4). There is no way we can claim that nuclear energy was not intended by God, or that some power other than God is responsible for it.

Nuclear Energy and Providence

When it was realized near the end of the last century and early in this century that the earth had been stocked, in addition to coal, with massive resources of oil and natural gas, it seemed marvelously providential. This immense energy gift has contributed enormously to man's welfare and potential, even though too much of this buried treasure has been thoughtlessly and foolishly squandered. At first this resource seemed limitless, but just as our domestic production of oil was beginning to dwindle and we realized that by the end of this century the enormous pool of oil in the Middle East plus other recoverable reserves elsewhere in the earth would also be declining, we have become aware that the earth has also been stocked with another, even more potent, and thousands of times more ample, energy reserve.

The gas diffusion plants in the United States which for thirty years now have been enriching natural uranium in its fissionable light isotope have also been discharging quantities of depleted uranium assaying about 99.8 percent in the abundant heavy isotope of atomic weight 238, These "tails" of the gas diffusion plants, as they are called, have been collected in steel drums, each containing over 9 tons. By now over 20,000 such drums have accumulated, and their number increases every day. With 10 passes through breeder reactors, some 70 percent of this uranium can he converted into the nuclear fuel plutonium by using an already developed and demonstrated technology. This amount of plutonium in nuclear power reactors can generate roughly the same amount of electricity as all the recoverable petroleum the earth ever contained or as much as the total recoverable reserves of coal in the United States. By the time breeder reactors are in general commercial operation, we will have in hand at least twice as much of this depleted uranium
already mined, processed, and purified. This enormous energy reserve provided for us just as the crisis of the exhaustion of our petroleum reserves has come upon us is surely an amazing instance of perfect timing in the revelation of God's providence. Moreover, it can he used with essentially no adverse effect on the environment, even including the final disposal of the radioactive wastes. The only thing in the way of our grateful acceptance of this gift is fear.

The Blessing and the Curse of Nuclear Energy

The ancient story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis concludes with a summary of what God accomplished in the crowning achievement of man: "So God created man in his own image ... and Cod said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth' " (1:27, 28). The long history of man on this planet has been marked by a steady increase in the human population and an ever-growing extension in the exercise of human dominion over all other creatures and the earth itself ("let them have dominion ... over all the earth ..." [1:26]. The twentieth century seems to be the one destined finally to see the fulfillment of this commandment. Man has been fruitful and multiplied and by the end of the century will just about have filled the earth. A jet flight over almost any part of the earth provides a convincing demonstration of the reality of man's dominion. Everywhere the cities and highways, the fields and factories of man are evident on the land, and on the oceans his boats and ships and supertankers plow the sea lanes. Man is rapidly approaching the limit both of his fruitfulness and of his dominion.

The benefits of man's God-given dominion have long been extolled in glowing treatises on progress and utopian visions of scientific and technological achievement. Only recently have the dangers and threats of unrestrained dominion begun to be widely recognized and discussed in terms of ecology and the environment. In what has turned out to be a landmark paper, Lynn White, Jr.,4 found the cause of our ecological crisis in this same passage from Genesis. But he was speaking of dominion exercised as a mindless domination of nature, a practice not peculiar to Western Christian civilization. This is evident from the ecological damage wrought by the engineering and agricultural achievements of classical pre-Christian Rome. The biblical understanding of man's dominion over the earth is one of stewardship rather than domination, as is evident from the symbolic meaning of Eden as a garden that man is responsible for tending and as is made vividly explicit in the following passage from Deuteronomy:

For Yahweh your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and he full, and you shall bless Yahweh your God for the good land he has given you.
Take heed lost ... when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in then, and when your herds and flocks
multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted op, and you forget Yahweh your God, (8-l4) ... Beware lest you say in your heart, my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.''
You shall remember Yahweh your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth ...(8; 7-18.

The true religious model of dominion in Western civilization is to he found in the extraordinary pastoral symbiosis of man and nature that the Benedictines slowly achieved as their monasteries spread over Europe and England. At the same time, however, dominion can become an intolerable burden that man may long to lay aside, as with the Franciscans in contrast to the Benedictines. But this is not possible. It is inescapably linked to man's freedom and so is not only a wonderful gift but a terrible and agonizing dilemma for sinful man. Jesus hen Sirach puts this dilemma forcefully in a remarkable passage in the Apocryphal book of Ecclesiastices, "It was he [Yahweh] who created man in the beginning, and he left him in the power of his own inclination .... Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given him" (15:14, 17). Because he is free, man cannot escape exercising dominion, but, the consequences of his choices are always under judgment. When his choices are self-centered and made without reverence and without responsibility for the care of the earth and its creatures, they lead to destruction. Many despair of man now that he wields the power of nuclear energy and are convinced that because of his unredeemed sinfulness, he cannot be trusted in his use of it. Perhaps they feel that God erred in giving mankind this power to begin with. But rightly or wrongly, man has it and has no other choice hot to accommodate himself to the reality of his situation.

For a full appreciation of the biblical understanding of dominion, the quoted passage from Genesis at the beginning of the Pentateuch must be balanced with one at its end in the closing portion of Deuteronomy, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live" (30:19). The immensity of the potential blessing of nuclear energy has already been noted in the section on providence. But the equal immensity of its potential curse is a present reality in the ever-proliferating arsenals of nuclear weapons throughout the world. Never before in his historic experience has man been faced with a potential for blessing and for curse of such an ultimate magnitude involving the whole earth and all its creatures.

For the first 15 years of the nuclear age our talents and energies in the United States were mainly devoted to realizing the destructive potential of nuclear energy. Only in the last 15 years have they been applied to a first beginning in the realization of its beneficial potential. Now, however, a growing number of voices are being raised against this effort. They urge us to refuse the blessing and so, in effect, to settle only for the curse of nuclear energy.

In an address on the subject of nuclear energy to the Fiftieth American Assembly at Arden House in 1976, Sen. John Pastore of Rhode Island eloquently brought out the full implications of such a fateful choice. Speaking as chairman of the then joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, he reviewed his experience of the awesome magnitude of the destructive potential of the United States' arsenal of 30,000 nuclear warheads. Then he said that the only way he personally could in conscience exercise his responsibility in the Congress was to do all in his power to develop the beneficial potential of nuclear energy. Without that opportunity, he would have had to refuse any personal involvement with it.

It is essential that we devote our best talents and efforts to finding ways to prevent the misuse of nuclear energy, to prevent the potential curse from being realized, but a refusal of the blessing is not one of them.5 In heightened form this is the age-old dilemma of sinful man's freedom and responsibility in the exercise of his God-given dominion over the earth.

Nuclear Energy and the Conquest of Fear

A pervasive theme through the Bible is one of overcoming fear. Fear produces a paralysis of action and must be overcome by a confident acceptance of life as it is given roan to be lived in spite of all its risks. From a biblical perspective, fear is to be overcome by faith in God and trust in his good purposes, which he accomplishes in such mysterious and unexpected ways. Especially in man's use of energy has the overcoming of fear and the choice between blessing and curse been dominant.

There was a time when primitive man shared with all the other animals of forest and steppe a paralyzing fear of fire and fled in terror from it whenever it broke out. Fire was then exclusively a curse, with no blessing in it. But at a crucial turning point in his history, man came through to the other side of fear and, instead of fleeing from fire, brought it right into his living quarters and thereafter tended and nurtured it. The curse of fire remains with us today as each year it takes its toll of human life and property. Uncontrolled outbreaks of fire continue to be fearful events. But out of the boldness and confidence of the decision to use it have come a multitude of blessings. Its heat sustained man through the last ice age, greatly increased his nutrition through cooking, and made possible pottery and glassware and the smelting of ores for metals. Today we take many precautions to reduce its curse, and we have discovered many more of its blessings. Today no one questions the validity of this first energy choice, but initially there must have been numerous fearful voices raised against it, or at least howls of dismay.

The most terrifying natural manifestation of fire on earth is an erupting volcano. The conquest of the fear of the manifestation of such overpowering destructive force was a decisive turning point for Israel and of profound significance for all subsequent human history. In the wild barrenness of the Arabian desert east of the Gulf of 'Aqaba, known in the Bible as the land of Midian, are a number of extinct volcanoes. One of these, known as Sinai, was periodically active in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C. For all the Bedouins, Hebrew and Aramean alike, the terrifying god of this volcano was Yahweh (Jehovah), in whose presence all alike were filled with terror. But one of the Hebrews, named Moses, changed all that. Taking the Hebrew tribes with him on a pilgrimage to Sinai, Moses in their presence braved the fearful hubbub and trumpeting of the mountain and climbed it through the thick cloud of volcanic ejecta that shrouded it to meet, as they believed, Yahweh face to face. The account in the Bible of this extraordinary event goes:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trurmpet blast, so that all the people w ho were in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God: arid they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because Yahweh descended upon it in fire: and the smoke of it 'vent lit) like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Moses spoke and God answered him in thunder. And Yahweh came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and Yahweh called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up (Exod. 19:16-20).

As a result of this experience, the tribes that were later formed into Israel cause through to the other side of fear. Instead of being immobilized with fright before the blazing and terrifying power of Yahweh, they came to rejoice in his presence with a wild exhilaration. They believed that for some mysterious reason he had chosen them from among all the other peoples of the desert to be his and in his presence they were filled with some of his indominitable power. The memory of this transformation of fear into boldness persisted for centuries as may be seen in the references to it half a millenium later in Deuteronomy 4:11, 32-33 and 36 ("he let you see his great fire") and 5:4-5, 22-27 and even much later in Hebrews 12:18-21. Israel's exhilaration in the presence of the God of the, volcano is expressed in several Psalms such as ". . . who [Yahweh] touches the mountains and they smoke!" (104:32) and vividly in Psalm 18:715. But it was not only in the volcano that Yahweh flamed forth. A storm with its thunder and lightning, and looking as though detached and floating free from a volcano, was also a manifestation of his power. This is evident in the vision of the volcano as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night in Exodus 13:21, 22 seen in the storm that accompanied the Israelites and delivered them in their flight from Egypt; in the opening portion of the Song of Deborah in judges 5:3-5 hailing a storm apparently coming from Sinai across Edom to the scene of the battle; and in Psalm 29 describing a storm coming in from the Mediterranean.
The conquest of the fear of fire has had many facets and rewards other than the possibility of utilizing its physical energy. Since the Industrial Revolution, the introduction of other energy' sources has been accompanied by' widespread fear that in time had to be overcome. When railroads were first introduced in the last century, they were met by extreme fear reactions. Their locomotives belching smoke and fire, hissing loudly, and puffing steam were a terrifying sight when first experienced. Electricity, as a natural phenomenon, was viewed for centuries only as a curse, and at the turn of this century, when it began to come into general use as a technology, it too was accompanied by widespread fear. It was a new and unfamiliar force, invisible and mysterious, and it inspired deep, subliminal fears. There was, of course, a real basis for some of this fear. Electricity is, in fact, quite dangerous, and a healthy fear of it has resulted in great strides in insuring its safe use. Man has found ways of conquering his natural fear of steam and electricity so that the) no longer paralyze him into rejecting these gifts. He has chosen to real) their blessings while at the same time laboring to reduce their curse.

We stand today on the threshold of reaping the blessings of nuclear energy. It is a gift many times more ample than any of the other energy gifts buried in the crust of the earth, and, as discussed earlier, our knowledge of matter and of the solar system have shown its that it is Cod's energy choice for the whole of creation. As with man's earlier energy thresholds, fearful voices are raised against it, and we are urged to reject its blessing. People fear for the safety of nuclear electric generating plants. They fear plutonium as such, as well as the possibility that it might be diverted from electric power to weapons. They have a pathologic fear of radiation and radioactivity. They conjure tip in their minds fearful scenarios of what might happen accidentally or by evil intent. Many of these fears have a real basis in fact, and to overcome these, major development efforts have been and are under way. But a large portion of current fears of nuclear energy are irrational, grossly exaggerated, and unnecessarily paralyzing.6 These fears will gradually subside as nuclear energy assumes its destined role in the future course of humanity. The real fears will always he there because nuclear energy is inherently dangerous. But it already has demonstrated a much better safety record and a far better environmental record than coal, and both records will improve with experience. We already have made a choice in favor of developing the blessing of nuclear energy, and mankind as a whole will surely not turn back merely because we are afraid to go on. The admonition in the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha, "for fear is nothing but a surrender of the helps that come from reason" (17:12), is applicable to the current public reaction to nuclear energy. But these fears, too, as with others in the past, will in time moderate and be overcomes. Let us hope that the time required will not he long because the world energy problem worsens with every passing year.


1R. Naudet et al., "Phenomene d'OKLO, "Bulletin de Information Scientifiques et Techniques, 193, June 1974: Commissariat a l 'Energie Atoomique. Paris.
2George A.Cowen, ''A Natural Fission Reactor," Scientific American, Vo1. 235, pp. 36-47, July 1976.
3Biblical quations are all in italics and are from the Revised Standard Version (Thomas Nelson), except that "the Lord" has been replaced he the original ''Yahweh."
4Lynn White, Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Science, Vol, 155. pp. 1203-1207, Starch 10, 1967.
5David J. Rose and Richard K. Lester, "Nuclear Power, Nuclear Weapons and lInternational Stability,'' Scientific American, Vol. 238, Pp. 45-57. April 1978:
6William C. Pollard, ''Energy and the Conquest of Fear," Chapter 4 in To To Avoid Catastrophe: A Study in Future Nuclear Weapons Policy,Michael P. Hamilton, Ed.; William B. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids.MI