Culture At Large

Japan’s reactor crisis and a theology of nuclear power

Brian J. Auten

In the midst of the ongoing emergency at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant (seen above), is it possible to define a Christian theology of nuclear power?

In the beginning, God created an earth containing about 40 times as much uranium as silver, bestowing upon mankind vast quantities of an element more apt to shed energy (heat) and radioactive particles when its nuclei are split by a bombardment of slower-moving neutrons. Uranium and its special properties were therefore part and parcel of what God originally deemed good. In this sense, there is no difference between uranium and, say, wood.

The first chapter of Genesis describes how God created plants and trees and called them good, so the fact that after the Fall trees were felled to fashion spears, javelins, Asherah poles and the flooring of the Holy of Holies in the Temple of the Living God means that while there can be no theology of wood qua wood, craftsmanship and the communal (political) effects of tools and other cultural artifacts have always been rich areas for theological reflection.

In short, nuclear power - civilian or military - is not malum in se. And thinking theologically about its civilian applications entails more than just concluding that non-radioactive means of generating electricity (like water, fossil fuels or wind) must be more God-honoring than fission since accidents involving the former are less likely to be fraught with catastrophe. As with any other type of cultural activity that involves express danger to the men and women involved in (or impacted by) its operation, civilian nuclear power can be applied for more or less moral reasons and can be performed in more or less moral ways (what might be considered near-equivalents to ad bellum and en bello considerations when it comes to the evaluation of military conflict within the Just War framework).

Indeed, I wonder if the theological conversation about civilian nuclear power could prove even more fruitful if organized within a category like Christian vocation. I have a very good friend, a solid evangelical, whose day-to-day job involves risk assessment and analysis. With a graduate background in seismology and geophysics, he constructs mathematical models and software tools to mitigate the risks faced by communities located near space vehicle launch sites and within vehicle flight paths. If I asked him to talk about his work theologically, I fully expect he would address imago dei, vocation and craftsmanship and would talk about how he applies his (albeit fallen) God-endowed reason, intellect and imagination towards the rigorous and honest evaluation of the problems put before his company. He might even reference the Golden Rule and neighbor-love (caritas); namely, to what extent is it possible to approximate the acceptable levels of risk and the safety standards one would want in place if one’s own family lived in a hazard area.

Post Fukushima Daiichi, there is (and will be continue to be) increased debate about how one should evaluate the robustness of nuclear reactors and their secondary power systems, as well as the risks posed to adjacent neighborhoods. There are questions about “imagination failure” and the challenges associated with relying on worst-case scenario planning versus more systematic analyses of human, decision-making, operating procedures and “cascading effects.” Finally, there are the counterterrorism and national security concerns - the perennial problems of keeping fissile materials (including reactor fuel) accurately inventoried and secure.

To be sure, there is no special “Christian way” of doing math, engineering or risk mitigation, but there is much room in the civilian nuclear sphere for those who hold to a clear theological understanding of Christian vocation, the love of one’s neighbor and God’s created order.

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