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Christian Ethics and Nuclear Power

by J. George Butler

Mr. Butler, a retired United Methodist minister, is a trustee of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, Inc., and chairman of its alternative energy committee. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 18, 1979, p. 438. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Christian ethics has as its frame of reference Jesus’ idea of God. God is creator of heaven and earth, a loving God concerned about human beings -- the children of God who are of infinite worth in his sight. We must reverence all of his creation: humanity as well as the earth. The psalmist sang: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Nearly 500 years ago Martin Luther questioned the distinction between the sacred and the secular: all life is sacred. And long before Luther, the creeds of Christendom spoke of God as “maker of all things visible and invisible.”

From this perspective, Christian ethics has a great deal to say about nuclear power -- its potential to destroy life and to poison the earth. Christians often use the word “stewardship,” but most often in a narrow sense, in connection with the practice of tithing one’s worldly goods. True Christian stewardship embraces the larger meaning found in the ancient creeds: all of life, “the world and they that dwell therein.”

“Christianity,” wrote Anglican Archbishop William Temple (Nature, Man and God, 1935), “is the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions”: it is concerned with daily bread as well as things spiritual, for the two are inextricably interrelated. Because of this materialism, Christian ethics must examine nuclear power in broad perspective. From the standpoint of stewardship of life as well as stewardship of the earth.

The Rasmussen Report

Let us consider nuclear power first in its relation to life. What dangers does it pose? Nuclear advocates assure us that the risk of catastrophic accident is negligible. For example, the public-relations department of the Illinois Power Company puts out an attractive brochure which quotes from a government report, the Rasmussen Reactor Safety Study: “Assuming 100 operating reactors . . . the chance of a nuclear accident involving 1,000 fatalities [is] in the same class as that of a meteor striking a U.S. population center, causing the same number of deaths.”

But the Rasmussen report is not the scientific document it purports to be. Henry Kendall of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists, took advantage of the Freedom of Information Act to pry from a reluctant Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) some material heretofore suppressed. His objective review of the Rasmussen document says simply that Americans have been deceived by it. Using the government records to which he finally gained access, Kendall concluded:

•that federal, officials .suppressed the results of an internal review of the “Reactor Safety Study,” made prior to its release, that found major flaws in the study’s methods, assumptions and data base. One reviewer called the study’s concept of accident probability “gibberish”; another reviewer labeled some of its estimates “suspiciously low.”

  that the “Reactor Safety Study” abandoned its review of certain sensitive safety issues because study officials feared “the facts may not support our predetermined conclusions” and because it was “not known in advance” that the results would “engender confidence” in the reliability of reactor safety systems.

  that the basic plan of the “Reactor Safety Study” was written by two MIT nuclear engineers; one was a director of the Atomic Industrial Forum, the nuclear industry lobbying group; the other, a nuclear industry consultant, was misrepresented as being a specialist in nuclear reactor safety.

  that the basic plan of the “Reactor Safety Study” was to produce a report that would have “significant benefit for the nuclear industry.” The study outline also stated: “The report to be useful must have reasonable acceptance by people in the industry.”

  that, despite the claim that the study was “independent” of the industry, the nuclear industry actually carried out important parts of the actual safety analysis reported in the study.

  that the government suppressed the report of another special task force of government nuclear safety experts which concluded that “it is difficult to assign a high degree of confidence” to the type of risk estimates being made by the “Reactor Safety Study” [The Risks of Nuclear Power Reactors: A Review of the NRC Reactor Safety Study (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1977)].

Prodded by the work of the Union of Concerned Scientists and by Congressman Morris K. Udall (D., Ariz.), chairman of the House subcommittee on energy and the environment, the NRC finally issued a report on January 19, 1979, repudiating major portions of the Rasmussen document. As the January 20 New York Times reported: “The decision [by the NRC] to reject totally the Rasmussen Study’s summary was based on a finding that the summary ‘is a poor description of the contents of the report. . .’”

But the nuclear industry proceeded to step up its lobbying to counteract the damage. General Electric has ordered its nuclear-division executives to seek out at least one congressperson or administration official on each trip to Washington to spread the pro-nuclear gospel; the company is even considering awarding prizes to those who manage to reach particularly important officials.

Whether such efforts will succeed is anybody’s guess. Udall believes that the fate of nuclear power is “hanging in the balance.” Should Congress decide that no new fission plants may be built until the waste-disposal problem is solved, the future of nuclear power may well be sealed.

Though nuclear advocates contend that reactors are safe, the American insurance industry apparently does not agree. There is not one homeowners’ insurance policy written in America which does not have a nuclear-exclusion clause. Further, no private group of insurance companies would consider writing nuclear-insurance coverage for the civilian nuclear power industry. Congress was forced to pass the Price-Anderson Act, guaranteeing $560 million of government insurance, before the civilian nuclear power program could begin operations.

Unforeseen Risks

While it is true that no catastrophic accidents have yet occurred, such incidents as the major fire at TVA’s Browns Ferry reactor in Alabama in 1975 and the 1966 partial meltdown of the core of the experimental Enrico Fermi breeder reactor near Detroit -- and now the near-calamity of the nuclear mishap at the power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania -- prompt one to ask: Has it not been more the result of good luck than of good management that this has been the case?

Though evidence continues to surface that there have been many more accidents than the nuclear industry likes to admit, let us assume that the chance of catastrophic accident is indeed negligible. Then one still must ask: What threat does low-level radiation from these reactors pose? Two factors must be borne in mind: the civilian nuclear-power industry is relatively young, with its large (600-800 megawatt) reactors having been in service for but a few years. Cancers from low-level radiation do not develop overnight, but take at least 20 to 25 years to appear. Only recently has the nation become alert to the dangers from the uranium tailings used a score of years ago in the foundations of houses. Now owners of such homes find them uninhabitable because of the cancer risks from the low-level radiation emitted by this discarded rock from uranium mines.

Last year the press was full of stories about the shipyard workers who developed leukemia as a result of working on atomic submarines in the 1950s. Side by side with these pieces were the ugly accounts of the navy’s efforts to cover up the truth about the dangers of such exposure. A report from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, grimly indicated that the cancer rate among shipyard workers who built atomic submarines a score of years ago was more than double the rate of the general population. Another news dispatch announced: “Government Pays Low Level Radiation Cancer Claims.”

Within the past year, the National Center for Disease Control, along with committees from both houses of Congress, has become aware of the hazards posed by levels of exposure heretofore deemed safe. Troops and civilian personnel exposed to atomic radiation from test blasts two decades a are only now being followed up to determine how many leukemia victims may be among them.

Indeed, present standards of presumed safe exposure to radiation -- 5 rems per year -- were set a quarter-century ago. (A rem is defined as “the dosage of any ionizing radiation that will cause the same amount of biological injury to human tissue as one roentgen of X-ray or gamma-ray dosage.”) There is mounting evidence to suggest that permissible safe limits of radiation exposure should be cut by a factor of ten. Such a reduction would have a devastating effect on the industry, which up to now has assumed that it was operating with safe, low-level radiation emissions.

My home, though nestled in a seemingly remote Vermont valley, is in fact only 12 miles from one atomic plant to the west, and 20 miles from another to the east. Last summer the one to the east had a two months’ shutdown to repair cracks in its emergency safety cooling system. While it was shut down, we learned, the plant continued to leak radioactive iodine 131 into the atmosphere. The reason the radioactive iodine leaked, said plant officials, was that the off-gas charcoal filter system was not functioning while the plant was closed. Thus gases from leaking fuel assembly rods bypassed the charcoal filter and escaped into the atmosphere. We were assured, however, that there was no danger to nearby residents.

Radioactive Waste Disposal

If low-level radiation poses a greater threat than was thought possible 25 years ago, what of the danger to life and to the earth from high-level radioactive waste? It is generally agreed that high-level waste poses risks. Industry spokespersons say, however, that it can be safely dealt with. Other scientists, including Linus Pauling, predict genetic damage to millions yet unborn. Even a 1 per cent addition to the natural background radiation of the earth, says Dr. Pauling, means thousands of additional defective children born, and thousands more cases of cancer.

The problem of what to do with high-level radio-active waste is the industry’s Achilles’ heel. Such waste is presently being stored on site at the 72 operating reactors across the nation. Germany is experimenting with storage of canisters in salt mines. But salt is corrosive, and the waste is so hot that there is grave danger of explosion. Sweden also reports storage problems; its three operating reactors are temporarily storing their radioactive waste on site under pools of water 20 feet deep.

Last April the Government Operations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives issued a report titled “The Costs of Nuclear Power.” The document is significant because it represents the first instance that any unit of the federal government has acknowledged that there are grave unsolved questions regarding nuclear power. (The government has heavily subsidized the civilian nuclear-power industry since creating the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948.) The committee contends that nuclear power is not cheap. The problem of nuclear waste has not been solved, despite more than 5,000 “studies” by government agencies. High-level waste is dangerous to life for a quarter of a million years. Should the earth survive even a fraction of that time, how will coming generations know where such waste is stored? What right do we have to mortgage the future of the earth in this manner? The committee asks:

If the technology exists and the problem of waste disposal has been solved, why has DOE not yet chosen a permanent federal repository for these wastes? And why has the technology for that disposal not yet been identified? The demonstration of that technology could terminate the controversy which threatens the survival of the nuclear industry.

Committee member Robert Drinan (D., Mass.) sums up the panel’s conclusions in these words:

 [The report] reflects the frustration of the Congress which has invested tens of billions of dollars and almost 30 years in the commercial development of nuclear power -- often at the expense of other energy options -- yet cannot obtain answers to the most elementary questions concerning the “back end” of the nuclear generating cycle.

An Expensive Option

If nuclear power poses a threat to life as well as to planet earth itself, why do we continue to travel down the nuclear road? Prudent economics would indicate, as indeed the Government Operations Committee concludes, that other options are cheaper. And in fact the civilian power industry is beginning to turn its back on nuclear power for economic reasons. Last year the four nuclear-reactor manufacturers in America -- General Electric, Westinghouse, Babcock & Wilcox and Combustion Engineering -- with a capacity of building 20 reactors a year, received not a single order for a nuclear reactor in the U.S. In the 1960s and early 1970s, orders poured in -- 21 in 1973, 26 in 1974. The Ford administration confidently predicted that by the year 2000, there would be 1,000 civilian reactors churning out limitless electric power for America.

But then, in 1975 and 1976, there were only seven new orders. Indeed, even in 1974 when 26 new orders were placed, nine previous orders were canceled and 91 deferred. From 1975 to June 1977, 20 more were canceled and 90 deferred.

Industry advocates will contend that cancellation and deferral are due to the lessening in demand and lower growth rate for electric power. But the Government Operations Committee found two other, more basic reasons. Because of environmental constraints and safety factors, nuclear plants cost too much to be competitive with other forms of power. In December 1975 the Massachusetts Energy Office issued a study showing that because of the increased capital costs and lower-than-expected capacity of nuclear reactors, coal plants were as cheap as, or cheaper than, nuclear plants in New England.

Over the years, the testimony of the marketplace has shown that the nation’s astute business people no longer consider nuclear power a feasible economic alternative. At this point the capitalist stewardship of money parallels the Christian concern not to waste resources. The Wall Street Journal for December 14, 1977, carried the news that Middle South Utilities was reducing the work force on its Waterford 3 nuclear power plant at Taft, Louisiana. That same issue carried a quarter-page advertisement by the same company which said: “It is too simple to say that the energy problem is over our heads, when the answer [coal] is under our feet.”

Four months later (April 28, 1978) the Wall Street Journal had another story about Middle South Utilities. Regarding a Babcock & Wilcox contract to supply six coal-burning boilers to the company, “Industry observers noted that the big order is the strongest indication yet of a major new move by electric utilities into use of coal as a boiler fuel in their power-generation plants. Currently, all five Middle South operating companies do not have any coal-fired capacity.”

And in the February 8, 1979, Wall Street Journal appeared this front-page headline: “Nuclear Industry Faces Bleak Future as Orders Get Increasingly Scarce.” According to the Journal, the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company opened a $30 million plant in Alabama a few years ago to supply parts for nuclear-power plants. That plant closed over a year ago because there was no business. In 1972, Chicago Bridge and Iron teamed up with General Electric to build nuclear-reactor pressure vessels in a Memphis, Tennessee, facility. But GE has not had a new reactor order since 1974 so this plant is now making hydroelectric generators.

The most thoroughgoing and trenchant economic analysis of nuclear power available is to be found in Saunders Miller’s book The Economics of Nuclear and Coal Power (Praeger, 1976). An investment banker, Miller is also an economist whose field is economic risk analysis. After examining nuclear power solely from the perspective of profit and loss, he concludes that “from an economic standpoint alone, to rely upon nuclear fission as the primary source of our stationary energy supplies will constitute economic lunacy on a scale unparalleled in recorded history, and may lead to the economic Waterloo of the United States.”

One need not be a Marxist to understand that ethical questions are often determined by economic considerations. Slavery was abolished in America, not only because of the aroused Christian conscience against it, but primarily because it was becoming unprofitable. Nuclear-fission power, with its tremendous capital costs and its poor reliability record, has reached its present nadir primarily because it has been weighed in the economic balance and found wanting.    


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