Sin and the nuclear question

The mangled remains of Japanese nuclear power plants continue to attract worldwide media attention. Sadly, our obsession with smoke belching from these crippled facilities has drawn our attention from the despair and loss of so many who’ve lost so much and who grieve their dead or missing loved ones. I suppose this is because there’s not much you can do about natural disasters. On the other hand, technological ones are ripe for cultural self-examination.

Of late, nuclear power opponents hold up Japan’s crisis as justification for a global moratorium on such technologies. And to be sure, the effects of these damaged reactors are spreading. Scientists have found residual radiation on the East Coast of the United States and even in Israel. The amounts aren’t a health or safety issue, but the news does give one pause.

No wonder, then, that the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines—a volcanic, earthquake-prone nation—has expressed “vindication” over their anti-nuke stance. Rome’s own spokesperson has likewise expressed caution over the use of this technology (while aptly referring to the Japanese nuclear plant workers as “heroes”). And, of course, political leaders have been making obligatory statements about their nuclear power plants being monitored for safety.

But the nuclear question remains: to build or not to build?

There is no easy answer. Every human invention comes at a price. Oil- and coal-powered energy production and transportation emits greenhouse gases and pollutes water. Wind power irritates anyone living nearby. Hydroelectric power alters the flow of water both upstream and down. Solar energy is still an expensive option. Compact florescent lighting contains mercury. The list goes on and on ...

Catholic ecologists know that sin keeps human solutions from ever being perfect. As we learn from Genesis, whenever we creatures grasp for knowledge, we take both good and evil along with it, and benefit or suffer accordingly.

Of course, one can choose wisely. Good engineering, construction practices and maintenance can solve a host of technology-induced ills. This goes especially for the wild world of nuclear power. Still, the devil is in the details, and there are many details in making electricity out of radioactive fuels. Can we ever be comfortable with nuclear power? Is it ever a moral solution to our legitimate needs? Or is it just another way to satiate our lust for electricity?

I tend to think that nuclear power needs to be part of any reasonable energy-production package. But I’m not married to the idea. I was once staunchly anti-nuke, and I confess that I sometimes too easily use Original Sin to justify not expecting better from myself and the world around me.

And so as I consider the nuclear question, I keep coming back to the words of Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office. As reported by Zenit News, Fr. Lombardi tells us that "nuclear energy is an immense natural resource that man tries to use in his service, but if it gets out of control it rebels against him."

"And no one knows better than the Japanese what the effects are of energy unleashed from the heart of man rebelling against him . . . The security of the plants and the safeguarding of radioactive material can never be absolute.

“It is right and obligatory to return to reflect on the correct use of technological power, on its risks, on its human price. The Pope recommends this often."

Well, then, let us reflect, and pray—not only for guidance on this most serious issue, but especially for the souls of those who died in Japan, and for the well-being of those living who have lost much and many.

Indeed, let us pray that our choices today cause little harm to those generations not yet born or conceived.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.