Science in Christian Perspective
Energy and the Environment
(C) Christian Concerns on Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Warfare
RICHARD H. BUBE
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford, California 94305
From: JASA 35 September 1983): 168-175.
Concerns about nuclear energy and nuclear warfare arise from many sectors of society. Christian concerns are not necessarily unique, but they do have a unique motivation and source of guidelines. Nor are Christian concerns agreed upon by all Christians; rather there is a broad spectrum of concerns from Christians who advocate nuclear energy and, if necessary, even nuclear warfare, to Christians who condemn the development of nuclear energy and any consideration of nuclear warfare.
It is the purpose of this installment to explore the foundational principles upon which Christian concerns are based and to investigate some of the conflicts that have arisen in Christian circles. 1 In doing this we do not hope to arrive at a final consensus, but to provide a framework within which a consensus might be developed if Christians commit themselves to a pursuit of authentic empirical data, humble prayer, and a waiting upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Most of our discussion is directed toward the question of nuclear energy per se, but since widespread development of nuclear energy cannot be considered in a practical sense independently of the possibility of nuclear warfare, some consideration of nuclear warfare is included in the final section.
Nuclear energy is such a crucial issue precisely because it seems to many to be the logical extension of human exploitation of the physical universe to the final possible step. Arguments in favor of nuclear energy remind us of the trepidations with which human beings faced former major technological developments from fire, to coal, the railroad, electricity and the airplane; at each stage, they argue, people tried to stop the advance of progress because of fear of the unknown. They imply that human progress from energy sources found in wood, to those in coal, oil and gas, and now to nuclear energy, is both necessary and desirable; to turn back from the advance of such progress is sub-human and a denial of the human spirit. The fundamental question raised, however, is "What is the proper goal of human efforts?" Can we take for granted that larger and larger energy expenditures are the appropriate goals? Or is it not possible that current concerns about nuclear energy really had bona fide expression at much earlier stages of energy exploitation, insofar as they pressed then for a more comprehensive view of human beings in ecological balance with a finite environment?Biblical Inputs and Their Interpretation
The biblical doctrine of creation leads us to see the entire created universe as depending for its origin and continuation upon the faithful and free activity of God. Nuclear energy may be seen as a totally natural aspect of this creation, and not an inherently unnatural or evil phenomenon. In fact nuclear energy is the universal and common type of energy found in the universe as a whole; all other types of energy are derived from it.2 Since nuclear energy does not exist without radioactive waste, it follows that such radioactive waste is also an integral and natural part of the created order.
Since we have had no difficulty in seeing the energy stored in coal, oil and gas as God's providential supply for our energy needs, should we not regard nuclear energy in the same way? God's creation gifts are given to us for our responsible use for good; because human beings have already put into use the curse of nuclear energy in the development of nuclear bombs, should we forsake the blessings of nuclear energy that we can provide? Human beings have always experienced fear when confronted with the unknown, but fear for the Christian is to be overcome by faith in God. Certainly this is the case for our everyday fears associated with the use of fire, or electricity, or the automobile, or the jet airplane. Fear paralyzes, but faith activates.
But does the naturalness and commonness of nuclear energy in the universe have a direct bearing on human decisions to develop nuclear energy plants on earth? Nuclear reactions are indeed not intrinsically evil, but life on earth would not exist today except for the fact that nuclear reactions are placed far away from the earth. God may have used nuclear reactions in the process of creation of the universe, but He used one particular nuclear reaction in the sun to bring about life on earth, and He placed that nuclear reactor a safe 93,000,000 miles away! On the basis of God's activity in creation, would not solar energy be the obvious providential supply?
Whether a nuclear power plant is good or evil does not depend on intrinsic goodness or evilness because of creation ' but on whether or not the plant is constructed and operated in a safe manner.3 Fears of fire and electricity are well founded; unless proper circumstances are used, they can be destructive. Fear therefore has a positive quality, leading human beings to careful energy use. Furthermore there is a large difference between the extent of danger in space and time from nuclear energy compared to fire or electricity. Breakdowns in safety in the use of fire or electricity are harmful to a few in the immediate vicinity; breakdowns in safety in the use of nuclear power may prove harmful to many over a wide area in space and for a long period of time.
The possibility for the use of nuclear energy should not be unthinkingly translated into the conclusion that it is God's
The fundamental question raised is, "What is the proper goal of human efforts?" Can we take for granted that larger and larger energy expenditures are the appropriate goals?
Within the biblical context, the earth belongs to God, not to human beings. Human beings are God's stewards, caretakers of the earth, his deputies responsible for the earth and everything on it. The basic commandment yielding the "cultural mandate" of Genesis 1:26-30 is supplemented by Genesis 2:15. The question, of course, is "What constitutes responsible stewardship of the earth?" We can rule out thoughtless exploitation of land or people for the benefit of a few, but the significance of this decision for the case of nuclear energy is not self evident. Is nuclear energy the thoughtless exploitation of the earth to increase the power and wealth of a few able to profit from this technology, or is nuclear energy essential to provide hope and potential for the poor of the world?
In one perspective nuclear energy is opposed because the earth itself is considered "sacred" and therefore must be preserved in its "natural" state. Theologically this view is clearly more pantheistic than Christian. It attributes intrinsic value to the given characteristics of nature, and views human activity as a violation of this value. In one form it fosters the myth of the noble savage living in a pristine environment; human civilization has destroyed the environment and corrupted the noble savage. In this perspective responsible stewardship requires that the environment be passed along in the same form it had when received, in order to preserve a benign environment from being ruined by human beings.' But in many areas the environment is clearly not benign, and human effort to improve them for the overall quality of human life has been consistently approved. There is no question but that open country and areas not affected by the grosser consequences of human commercialization play an important aesthetic role for human beings, but to absolutize this experience is both inconsistent and unjustified.
It is particularly misguided if used to arrive at the conclusion that the production of energy by any means can occur without affecting the environment. Every energy source has its own set of benefits, costs, risks, and uncertainties, which must be evaluated as objectively as possible.' Furthermore an assessment of these risks must not stop at only the physical or even the aesthetic, but must include the full impact in the biological, social, psychological, and spiritual areas as well. If energy production seems certain to damage some aspects of the environment, lack of energy production may lead to such a chaos of unemployment, economic deprivation and social unrest that human qualities may be destroyed in the midst of a "preserved" environment. These are not easy questions, and we cannot always claim the answer of our preference.
Still responsible stewardship requires an informed and careful assessment of the risks. Pollution of the environment in any one of a variety of ways needs to be minimized. if energy is required to allow the poor to realize a more adequate style of life, the proclamation of "enough" is required on the use of energy by those who today already have had much more than their share."Human Fallibility and Sinfulness
An assessment of energy supply risks that does not include consideration of the fact that human beings are both fallible and sinful may well be illusory. A program that might be suitable in a perfect and sinless world is not liable to last very long in the real world in which we live. Energy supply systems must therefore be safeguarded, not only against adverse effects in the physical and biological areas, but also against the possibility that human beings may make mistakes and against the certainty that human beings will attempt to misuse the system in some way at some time. Systems with a larger capability for damage under human error or human sin are therefore less preferable than systems with less capability.4
The fears associated with nuclear energy stem in considerable part, therefore, not from the belief that nuclear energy itself is evil, but that human beings are sinful.7 A technology that poses a risk of irreversible damage to the whole world and that is susceptible to misuse by human beings therefore requires enormous caution before it is accepted as the course of responsible stewardship.Love, justice, Freedom and Peace
The Christian is called upon to live in such a way that love is exhibited, justice is sought, freedom is preserved or gained, and peace is achieved. In the imperfect and sinful world in which we live, such an attempt to live out the life of Christ will not meet with perfect acceptance or success at any given time, but the Christian's calling is to be faithful.
One problem with nuclear energy is that it appears to be most useful to those nations who already have a comer on the energy market. Pursuit of the breeder reactor as a longrange goal, therefore, seems meaningful only to the developed countries as an act of selfishness.4 What the non-developed countries need-and this is where the poor are living toward whom Christian concerns are extended, is a non-centralized power system. But nuclear energy demands exactly the opposite. For nuclear energy to be successful, we face increasing reliance on a small number of centralized power plants with the need for transportation of this power over great distances; such a system cannot work unless we move in the direction of an even more highly organized, centralized and technology-dependent society than we have at present.8
Will the development of nuclear energy lead to peace? Will developed nations with nuclear energy somehow supply energy to non-developed nations without it? Or is it more likely that the non-developed nations, seeing their small supplies of energy disappearing, often after exploitation in earlier years by the developed nations, will grow increasingly desperate and seek to retaliate against their self-centered neighbors? Nuclear energy seems so vulnerable: it magnifies the errors and sins of a few and places them on the shoulders of the many; it is uniquely suitable for sabotage and exploitation by terrorists; the disposal of nuclear waste is a problem of first magnitude.
The fears associated with nuclear energy stem in considerable part, not g_ from the belief that nuclear energy itself is evil, but that human beings are sinful.
Of all the problems associated with nuclear energy, that associated with the disposal of nuclear wastes poses some of the most difficult questions. These problems center on the fact that these wastes are potentially lethal long after their use in the production of nuclear energy is ended. Anti-nuclear proponents may stress that the wastes are toxic "forever" while pro-nuclear proponents may point out that the wastes are no more toxic than the ore used to make them after 500 years, but no matter bow the time scale is measured, it is a long time compared to human life. All operating nuclear reactors and all nuclear fuel processing facilities will sooner or later become nuclear wastes; such plants have an expected operating lifetime of 30-35 years.9 They must therefore be added to all of the low-level wastes, intermediate level liquid wastes, transuranic wastes, gaseous radioactivity vented during operation, high level liquid wastes, and spent fuel rods (each with about three years of operating life). Any attempt to dispose of these wastes safely over long periods of time seems to be a gamble that neither human accident or malice, nor natural catastrophe will remove the disposal barriers that prevent toxicity from these materials spreading through water, air or biomaterials.
The argument that the disposal of nuclear wastes is a problem that cannot be sidestepped because there already exist large quantities of high level nuclear wastes as byproducts of nuclear weapon production,10 can hardly be used effectively to defend the thesis that we ought therefore to increase the amount of waste through widespread use of nuclear energy. Indeed, as far as I can tell, no one today knows for sure how the nuclear waste problem can be effectively handled; opinions are neatly divided between those who have faith that the problem can be handled without any difficulties and those who doubt whether such longrange perfect solutions are possible in this imperfect and sinful world. On a theological level the issue can almost be reduced to a tension between trust in the delivering power of God on the one hand, and fidelity to the reality of the biblical picture of human nature on the other.
Unfortunately, however, the issue is not as simple as a choice between nuclear wastes and no wastes at all. In order to evaluate the danger of nuclear wastes, a comparison must be made with the toxic wastes generated by other alternative modes of energy production, as well as with toxicity to which human beings are exposed through natural occurrences and our general technological culture. Such a comparison calls for a f airly sophisticated risk analysis, which we consider in a little more detail in the following section. Here, however, we concentrate on the alternatives to the development of nuclear energy.
The most elementary realization is the simple fact that no method for the generation of electricity, which is the form of energy that nuclear plants produce, is perfectly safe. Burning of coal or oil causes lethal air pollution and increases the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere with potential longrange climatic consequences, use of gas kills by asphyxiation and explosions, hydroelectric dam failures drown thousands, solar energy apparatus requires vast quantities of steel, aluminum and cement that add to general pollution in their production, and doing without energy althogether causes all kinds of human suffering and deprivation.11 The total toxicity of nuclear wastes aged 100 years resulting from an all-nuclear United States electric economy would be several orders of magnitude less than the lethal
doses of commonly used chemicals, such as arsenic, barium, hydrogen cyanide, which are annually present in the United States." Furthermore it is reported that nuclear power plants release much lower quantities of radioactivity than coal-fired power plants, and also do not release the carcinogen that is the main cancer-causing ingredient in cigarettes, nor the large quantities of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides; estimates place the risk of lung cancer due to coalfired power plants at something like ten times greater than for nuclear plants. 12 The toxicity of nuclear wastes does decrease with time; the toxicity of chemical wastes such as arsenic, for example, lasts for as long as the earth does.
Attempts to analyze such relative risks are not easy. There are as many estimates of risk as there are estimaters. Clearly this appears to be a case where sufficient information is not available. Curious dilemmas continue to arise: typical estimates are that coal burning causes about 10,000 deaths each year in the United States, but this corresponds to "only" a 13-day reduction in life expectancy for the average American; a major increase in energy conservation by massive drives toward total structure insulation will increase radon exposure to the point (so it is estimated) that 5000 to 10,000 deaths might arise from this cause alone.11Ethics of Risk Analysis
The fact that morality in action cannot proceed without a firm basis in empirical data is nowhere more evident than in attempts to resolve questions of risk with respect to nuclear energy. Since risk is inevitable in any course of action, guidelines to moral choices must be embedded in an understanding of the actual situation-a difficult and timeconsuming task. Nevertheless, without such scientific evidence, truly moral choices cannot be made. Ethical principles supply guidelines for action when a given situation is at hand; the determination of what situation is at hand is crucial and cannot be neglected.
The human race has lived for its entire history in an environment exposed to radioactive radiation. This radiation has come from cosmic rays (such that the dose at Denver with its higher elevation is twice that in New York City), cosmogenic radioactivity (such as that used in C14 dating), and primordial radioactivity (for which levels are five to 20 times higher in eastern Brazil and southern India than elsewhere, without sure evidence of deleterious effects).13 The average whole-body radiation dose from all natural sources in the United States is about 80 millirem.14 Average medical and dental exposure is about 70 millirem. It is reported that no measurable health effects on either animals or man can be detected at all below about 10,000 millirem for human beings, although considerable debate exists concerning the effects of low-level radiation on the origin of cancer in human beings. Nevertheless, it is clear that additional radiation due to nuclear energy generation must be measured with respect to the amount of 100 to 250 millirem to which all human beings are exposed from natural causes.
To strive for "zero" radioactivity radiation is both foolish and intrinsically impossible. A radiation level that is of the order of or less than the naturally present level must be given the status of "effective zero" for all purposes of risk elevation. Similarly to strive for a system that is "perfectly safe" is both foolish and intrinsically impossible." No human activity is perfectly safe; certainly we never let the empirical fact that thousands of lives are lost each week in the United States because of the automobile lead us to the conclusion that automobiles should be banned. Nor do we cease to fly in airplanes because we know that airplanes can crash, or cease to travel by boats because we know that boats can sink. More accidents happen at home than away. We have learned to live in a world in which "absolute safety" is recognized to be an illusion. We might philosophically desire it to be otherwise, but we do not order our lives in an effort to bring absolute safety into effect. We have learned to distinguish between the possibility of something happening, and the probability of its happening; when the probability is reckoned to be sufficiently small (by comparison with a balance of gains and losses), then we do not allow the possibility to hinder us.
As was mentioned earlier in our discussion of stewardship, an evaluation of risks must not involve only physical or biological risks, but must also include estimates of social consequences. This may be an even more difficult task. Consider, for example, the basic question, "will the development of nuclear energy help the poor?" Will it reduce world-wide poverty, help keep the peace, and lead to justice and freedom for more people? One can imagine a number of possible scenarios, the acceptance of any one of which would lead to a relatively easy ethical decision about nuclear energy. If it could be shown that the development of nuclear energy would help the rich and harm the poor (evaluated on a world-wide basis), or even that nuclear energy would help the rich and neither help nor harm the poor, it would be a fairly direct choice to minimize its use and plan for its being phased out. If, on the other hand, it could be shown that the development of nuclear energy would particularly help the poor with minimal harm to all, there would be no difficulty in embracing its rapid development. It is not likely that such simple social scenarios are accurate.
Risks do not exist independent of the circumstances in which they are found or of the benefits that must justify them.6 The danger of radioactive wastes cannot be considered in the abstract, but rather any risks of adverse health effects from such radioactivity must be measured in terms of the environmental pathways that would lead to their being assimilated by human beings. If wastes can be retured to the same (or better) level of risk as that posed by natural uranium ore in the earth's crust, little objection can be raised.
Actually human society functions more along the lines of "justifiable harm" than of "acceptable risk."' How indifferent can the majority be to the suffering of the minority needed to produce a good for the majority, and how indifferent can the minority be to the deprivation of the majority needed to preserve a good for the minority?15 if any of us knew that a human being would die in order for us to have an hour's worth of electricity-and particularly if we knew that human individual involved-few if any of us would insist on having our electricity anyway. The harm involved would clearly not be justifiable. But if we are told that there is a 10% chance that a human being will die sometime in the next 10 years for our one hour's worth of electricity-particularly if that human being is only an abstract statistic-we may well conclude that the electricity needed to light the operating room, to warm the house for the elderly, or to cook the children's soup provides the basis to justify the harm. We need a far more acute consciousness of the harm that follows from all of the forms of our technological culture, and an evaluation of when this harm is indeed ethically and morally justifiable.
One problem with nuclear energy is that it appears to be most useful to those nations who already have a corner on the energy market.
With all their complexity and general neglect to date, the
response needed to cope with physical or biological risks to
human welfare is relatively simple. Because it is simple, it
tends to command all of our attention, and we try to simplify
it still further by considering only one kind of physical or
biological risk rather than the many within which we daily
live. We are much concerned about the eff ect on future
generations of what we do today-and rightly so. If only we
could bring equal concern to bear on the other risks that we
are passing on to future generations: unsolved problems of
starvation, poverty, and racism, then indeed our legacy for
the future would be one of spiritually gratifying benefits.6
Parameters; of Risk.
Technologies and items were rated on characteristics
that analysis showed could be represented by the two factors seen in the grid:
dread and how well understood the risks are perceived to be. After Paul Slovic
of Decision Research;
reprinted from Jane Stein, "Assessing the Risk," Mosaic, September/October 1982, pp. 17-23.
If such high concerns are raised about the development of nuclear energy power plants to supply the needs of the people of the world as we have discussed above, bow great are the concerns that focus on the use of nuclear energy in warfare!
The basic Christian evaluation of warfare itself remains one of the great unsolved issues for the Christian community. Centuries of effort with models of a "just war" leave people unsatisfied. Certainly the full explication of Jesus' command to "Resist not evil" in the life of the Christian individual and community remains a provocative challenge. This is not the place to treat this basic question; it is important to mention its fundamental nature, however, in order for us to understand the specific response to nuclear warfare, and we will consider it further in the next installment.
It is often thought that Christian aversions to warfare stem from an unwillingness on the part of Christians to die for others; such an attitude is clearly unChristian and hence apparently open to unquestioned attack. It is important to realize, however, that the opposition to warfare that finds its heart in the center of responsible Christian thought arises not from an unwillingness to die for others if that be necessary, but from an unwillingness to kill others for any reason.16 Complicating the whole situation, of course, is the realization that most wars are fought for reasons far from the ideals that are publically extolled, and using methods that violate Christian principles in many ways.
To many responsible Christians, entrance into a nuclear war is simply unthinkable. 17 Arthur Holmes, a Christian philosopher, says, "Strategic nuclear weapons have been denounced by Christian ethicists, Protestant and Catholic, as a crime against God and man; and tactical nuclear weapons could too easily trigger further escalation. I cannot see how a world war with modern weaponry could ever again be justified." And Lewis B. Smedes, a Christian ethicist, writes,
"I cannot find in my imagination's storehouse anything to justify all-out nuclear war.... An all-out war, short of nuclear
In order to evaluate the danger of nuclear wastes, a comparison must be made with the toxic wastes generated by other alternative modes of energy production.
It is not clear how closely a nuclear energy development is tied to a nuclear weapon development program. If there were a close correlation between the two (and it seems as if such a connection is tenuous at best-or worst), this could play a major role in Christian evaluations of the options.Summary
Some of the major themes in this discussion may be summarized as follows:
1. Consideration of development of energy sources needs to balance two perspectives: (a) Is nuclear energy the only option? and (b) All options have their risks and costs.
2. Good stewardship requires a complete risk assessment that includes not only physical and biological risks, but also social, psychological, aesthetic and spiritual risks.
3. Plans that are made on the assumption of human
infallibility and perfection are doomed to early failure.
4. No method of generating electricity is perfectly safe.
5. Moral values and ethical principles are not a substitute for scientific evidence.
6. To desire non-degradation of the environment does not mean regarding the environment as intrinsically benign and sacred.
7. justifiable harm is often the framework within which
we must view human activities, rather than simply acceptable
8. Added risks must not exceed naturally occurring risks.
9. Radioactive wastes are not as toxic as many chemicals in common widescale use.
10. Recognition of the universal presence of risks and harm in all methods of generating energy may lead us, not to accepting all methods because all are equally bad, but to re-evaluating our goals and methods to minimize these risks and harms.
11. Christian rejection of nuclear warfare does not arise from an unwillingness to die, but from an unwillingness to kill.
1This installment is based on a paper presented at the 1980 Science, Philosophy and Religion Symposium, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
2William G. Pollard, "A Theological View of Nuclear Energy," Jour. ASA, Vol. 32, No. 2, 70 (1980).3Vernon J. Ehlers, "Gems of Wisdom and Wrong Conclusions," ibid., p. 78.
4 Kenneth A. Martin, "Biblical Mandates and the Human Condition," ibid., p. 74.5Everett R. Irish, "Perspective on Energy Technology Choices," ibid., p. 112.
6Margaret N. Maxey, "Nuclear Waste: Beyond Faust and Fate," ibid., p. 97.
7Robert Case, "Human Responsibility and Human Liberation," ibid., p. 79.
8David A. Hoekema, "Does the Nuclear Option Make Sense?" The Reformed journal, August (1979), pp. 18,19.9Ellen Winchester, "Nuclear Wastes," Jour. ASA, Vol. 32, No. 2, 83 (1980).
12 Everett R. Irish, "Benefits of Nuclear Power Outweigh Its Risks," ibid., p. 92.
13David L. Willis, "Nukes or No Nukes? Absolute Thinking in a Relative World," ibid., p. 102.
14Some reader may wish to know what a "millirem" is. A millirem is one thousandth of a rem. A rem is the amount of ionizing radiation required to produce the same biological effect as one roentgen of high-penetration X rays. A roentgen is a unit of radiation dosage equivalent to the quantity of ionizing radiation required to produce one esu of electricity in one em' of dry air at O'C and standard atmospheric pressure. Conclusion: for practical purposes it is a relative unit for comparison purposes only.
15Richard H. Bube, "How Simple Life Would Be If Only Things Weren't So Complicated!" ibid., p. 65.16Richard H. Bube, "The Foolish Alternative," journal ASA 21, 134 (1969)
17 Eternity Magazine, June 1980, "When would war with the Soviet Union be justified?"
6. Increasing technological development seerns inevitably to be associated with large increases in the amount of chemical and radioactive wastes that burden the ecology. Is there a lesson in this for future planning?
7. It is suddenly discovered that your drinking water contains radioactive wastes that are not biologically harmful but would contribute about 50 millirem radiation dose in normal usage. Would you stop drinking the water? Move away? Demand that the radioactivity be reduced to 10 millirem?
8. Does it trouble you that some lives will be damaged and lost in order to provide you with the energy that you demand? How many lives would have to be damaged or lost per year in order for you to get concerned? To change your lifestyle?
9. Should particularly Christians be willing to incur risk to their lives and health to provide needed energy for others?
10. List the five most serious problems that we are passing along to our children and to their children.
11. A Christian is manning the "big button" when word comes that nuclear warheads are on their way to the United States from the Soviet Union in a first-strike attack. Can that Christian push the button to send nuclear warheads against the Soviet Union in retaliation?