Nuclear energy, strictly conceived, has received rather scant attention within the literature of science and religion. However, if the focus is broadened to include nuclear technologyhat is, nuclear energy and nuclear weapons considered togetherhen there is a modest increase in its treatment.
Benefits and risks
Nuclear energy has long been viewed as an alternative energy source to coal and petroleum, which are currently the principal sources of energy. Coal and petroleum provide efficient sources of energy, but their combustion also generates considerable carbon dioxide that escapes into the atmosphere. Although a few dissenters remain, the vast majority of climatologists hold that the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere creates a greenhouse effect. This greenhouse effect dramatically warms the planet, which leads, in turn, to global climate change, resulting in different impacts on different regions of the planet.
Nuclear energy provides an especially attractive alternative to coal and petroleum because it does not contribute to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Shifting to nuclear energy could potentially lead to a cleaner, healthier environment without a reduction in the human consumption of energy. However, the benefits of nuclear energy must be weighed against its substantial costs and risks. The principal cost of nuclear energy occurs with the safe disposal of radioactive wastes. In addition to the costs of disposal, there is the risk that nuclear radiation could be released into the environment, either at the nuclear power plant or at the site of waste disposal. Such a release could be accidental, the result of equipment malfunction or human error. There is also the risk of an intentional release of nuclear radiation as an act of terrorism. Whether accidental or intentional, such a release could potentially destroy all biotic life in the affected area and make the area sterile for life for the foreseeable future.
Although as of 2002 there have been no intentional releases of nuclear radiation into the environment, there have been two serious accidents at nuclear power plants. In 1979, there was an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. There was another accident in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Although very little nuclear radiation escaped from the Three Mile Island accident, nuclear radiation did escape from the Chernobyl accident, causing substantial ecological damage and the deaths of a number of people.
Within the science and religion literature, Ian Barbour provides one of the few focused treatments of nuclear energy in his book Ethics in an Age of Technology (1993). Barbour begins his examination with a discussion of risk. If risk is defined as the probability of an accident multiplied by the magnitude of its consequences, then the risk posed by nuclear energy is low, compared to other daily activities, such as driving a car. However, Barbour argues that evaluations of such technological risks must also be influenced by assumptions about human nature and social institutions. Taking a Christian religious perspective, Barbour argues that the individual and social sin inherent in the human condition calls for extreme caution in the development of nuclear energy because the risks and consequences are so high.
Shifting his focus to the safe disposal of radioactive wastes, Barbour identifies three ethical issues. First, Barbour notes that an issue of regional justice arises because radioactive waste disposal imposes extreme risks for a local population in order to provide a national benefit for everyone. Intergenerational justice raises a second ethical issue. The present generation would enjoy the benefits of nuclear energy, but passes on some of the burdens and risks of waste disposal to future generations. Finally, Barbour identifies the loss of public confidence in governments and the energy industry as a third ethical issue. His point here is that historically government and industry have been secretive and have failed to protect the public, rather than being transparent and promoting public discourse concerning the benefits, costs, and risks of nuclear energy. Barbour believes that more promising energy alternatives lie in energy conservation and in the use of other renewal energy sources, such as solar power.
In the 1980s, several religious writers warned that nuclear weapons and nuclear war threatened not only human life but the ecological viability of the planet. Two Christian theologians, Gordon Kaufman and Sallie McFague, argued further that these interconnected challenges were rooted in what has become a flawed understanding of God's power. In Theology for a Nuclear Age (1985), Kaufman argues that the threat of nuclear war and annihilation elicits two contrasting responses from traditional Christian conceptions of God. On the one hand, nuclear annihilation is interpreted in eschatological terms as God's action to bring the present age to an end. On the other hand, the threat of nuclear war is discounted because of the view that an almighty creator God, who loves humans and the rest of creation, would not allow such a disaster to occur. Kaufman notes that both responses have the effect of obscuring and undermining the responsibility that humans have for their actions. While the traditional understanding of God as omnipotent may have been appropriate for earlier times, Kaufman argues that this understanding is no longer appropriate in a nuclear age. In light of the threat of nuclear weapons, Kaufman proposes that Christian theologians need to reconceive of God's power, moving from a dualistic to an interdependent understanding. This would require theologians to rethink their formulation of the symbols "God" and "Christ." McFague concurs with Kaufman's analysis in her book Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (1987). As alternative models for thinking about God, McFague proposes mother, lover, and friend.
While both Kaufman and McFague were thinking initially of the threat of nuclear annihilation, they both extend their analyses to include ecological concerns. Thus, whether conceived broadly as nuclear technology, or more narrowly as nuclear energy, the literature of science and religion has consistently seen critical ecological implications for the planet.
See also ECOLOGY; ECOLOGY, ETHICS OF; ECOLOGY, RELIGIOUS AND PHILOSOPHICAL ASPECTS; ECOLOGY, SCIENCE OF; GREENHOUSE EFFECT
Barbour, Ian. Ethics in an Age of Technology. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.
Kaufman, Gordon D. Theology for a Nuclear Age. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1985.
McFague, Sallie. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.
RICHARD O. RANDOLPH
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