Nuclear Energy — Problems and Promises
A Study Paper of The American Lutheran Church, 1980
This study paper, designed to identify issues and encourage involvement of Christians as citizens helping to shape public policy, was researched and written by Pastor Susan K. Hedahl, Lutheran Church of Peace, Maplewood, Minnesota, on short-term service as special assistant to the director, Office of Research and Analysis. Pastor Hedahl was greatly helped by information, advice, and counsel received from a great number of persons, whose assistance she gratefully acknowledges. The paper has been approved by the Standing Committee for the Office of Research and Analysis, February 29-March 1, 1980 as a resource for study within The American Lutheran Church so as to stimulate thinking, promote discussion, and motivate informed Christian response.
A. Nuclear Energy and Justice
The nuclear age has permeated our lives in an irreversible fashion. We are surrounded by its symbols: the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant, a dental X-ray machine, the "mushroom cloud" of an atomic bomb test. Our language reflects the place of nuclear power in our midst when we speak of uranium, the Manhattan Project, nuclear medicine, and Three Mile Island.
What place does nuclear energy have in the future energy patterns of America and in the global context?
As we advocate and search for just uses of our energy sources, our responsibilities as Christian stewards become increasingly apparent. These responsibilities include an awareness of the problems and promises of nuclear energy. We must be able to identify and evaluate the energy needs of both present and future generations insofar as that is possible. Any use of nuclear energy demands an involvement in its equitable distribution in order that all might share in the risks and benefits of this fuel source.
Answers to concerns such as these reflect many differences in perspective. The mystique surrounding the atom in its earlier days of development led to the formation of a scientific community sometimes labeled the "nuclear priesthood." This notion of nuclear power as a little-understood, highly-complex energy source governed by the knowledgeable few still prevails today. Others, however, see nuclear energy merely as a rather exotic way to boil water for the production of electricity.
A confused public must cope with a continual barrage of information relating to moratoria, sabotage threats, and the various economic and political effects of nuclear power. Discussions of nuclear energy are often earmarked by unfounded hopes for cheap energy supplies, or unjustified pessimism regarding the hazards of this fuel source. Regardless of opinion, perceptions of nuclear power are frequently distorted by misinformation and fear.
Responsible dialogue among all sectors of the population is becoming an obvious necessity. Government, industry, the public, the scientific community, and special interest groups need opportunities mutually to evaluate the risks and benefits that surround the use of nuclear power.
Thus the central concern of this paper is: How are we to effectively participate in the complexities of energy stewardship based on the biblical injunction to seek justice for all of God's people? Nuclear energy is an inherent part of this question and quest.
B. The Nuclear Fuel Cycle
Prior to any discussion of nuclear power, it is essential to have a basic understanding of the phases of the full fuel cycle. This cycle can be divided into two parts: the "front-end of the cycle" including all steps of uranium preparation before its use in a reactor, and the "back-end of the cycle" referring to the treatment of spent fuels after their removal from the reactor.
Each step of the cycle contains potential for further technological development as well as increased risks.
1. Front-End of the Cycle
a. Mining and Milling: Most uranium ore is found in the western part of the United States in both deep and surface mines. After extraction, the uranium is crushed into solid "yellowcake" form. Mine safety, uranium tailings disposal, and decay elements called "radon daughters" pose possible problems because the radioactive content of mined materials can be potentially dangerous for human health and the environment. Toxicity, or levels of poison in radioactive materials, range from almost nonexistent to lethal, and requires close monitoring.
b. Conversion and Enrichment: The "yellowcake" is converted to uranium fluoride in order to increase the needed percentage of the scarce form of uranium (U235) which can be used -- or will "fission" -- in today's type of reactor. This process of increasing the percentage of U235 is termed "enrichment."
c. Fabrication: The enriched materials are converted into fuel pellets making up the rods for assembly in the reactor. The materials are then transported to reactors for use.
2. Back-End of the Cycle
a. Reprocessing: After the uranium fuel is used in the reactor, it can be dealt with in two ways:
(1) stored indefinitely on site at the power plant, or elsewhere; or (2) sent to a reprocessing plant for recycling.
One important derivative of spent fuels is plutonium. This element is fissionable (energy can be released from it) and can provide energy as fuel in today's commercial reactors. Also, it can be produced and used in an advanced type of reactor called the "breeder reactor" which produces more fissionable material than it consumes.
Plutonium is a highly efficient but toxic source of energy. Governmental restrictions currently forbid reprocessing and the commercial use of plutonium-fueled reactors, but research continues in this area.
The future of the "breeder reactor" thus depends on future governmental decisions which must be made concerning waste storage, reprocessing, and waste disposal.
b. Waste Storage and Disposal: This aspect of the fuel cycle has been labeled the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry. Without recycling, commercial and defense wastes -- representing both low and high-level wastes -- have yet to be disposed of in a comprehensive and satisfactory manner.
A variety of feasible technologies are now being examined both here and abroad to settle on both permanent and interim disposal methods. Local, state, and federal groups are interrelated voices in determining place, methods of disposal, and monitoring of wastes. By law, the federal government has overriding responsibility for these areas.
Current decisions will have ramifications for many decades because the radioactive levels of the materials can possibly affect streams and underground water, air, land, and human health should leaks or spills occur.
c. Transportation: Construction, use, and disposal of materials relating to nuclear power are all dependent on truck, ship, and rail transport. Shipment of spent fuels and recycled materials is of particular concern because of the possibility of sabotage or accident. A maze of law governs the responsibilities of shipper, carrier, and receiver. The Federal Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have the predominant voices in these matters.
II. ISSUES AT THE CORE
When assessing the potential of nuclear power for domestic and international needs, several areas of concern must be noted. Each one encompasses one or more phases of the nuclear cycle. Undergirding all of these concerns is the risk factor involved. Since no energy source is risk-free, questions need to be addressed in the realm of nuclear power which take note of this factor.
What are the acceptable boundaries -- political, economic, health, environmental, and social -- for the integration of nuclear power into a national energy package? Is nuclear power a short-term, economically unfeasible fuel source, or is it a potentially renewable and self-sufficient cache of future energy? Finally, is this power source one which lends itself to human health and safety or do its mechanisms run counter to Christian perceptions of energy justice?
A. Health and Safety Issues
Public reflection and controversy center primarily on the concern for the over-all safety of the nuclear fuel cycle. Because of the toxicity of the materials involved and their unknown long-term effects, no segment of the fuel cycle should escape careful scrutiny. Health and safety factors focus on two areas in particular: (1) reactor safety and (2) the health of those both directly and indirectly related to nuclear power.
Reactor operations are surrounded by the potential for controversy. Licensing by federal and state authorities has proved to be lengthy and time-consuming, but in spite of this comprehensive process, health and safety continue to be controversial subjects. Other items which cause debate and concern are: waste disposal, acceptable radiation levels, plant siting, environmental effects, operator training, the safety of plant design, and decommissioning of plants.
The principal health issue concerns the biological effects of low-level radiation. Because radiation is not directly experienced by the senses at low dosages, reactions to its presence range from "radiation phobia" to a blasé attitude. Intense fear of radiation as well as a negligent attitude toward it result from a lack of information about the hazards and sources of this phenomenon.
These fears of radiation overlook the reality of the inevitable presence of natural background radiation in the environment. Jet travel, potassium 40 in the human skeletal structure, nuclear medicine, and brick buildings can raise significantly the yearly dosage of received radiation. On the other hand, a disregard for radiation's possible effects overlooks its mutagenic and carcinogenic potential. Mutagenic dosages of radiation can provoke genetic changes and result in abnormalities in the offspring of various ecosystems. The carcinogenic properties of radiation can produce cancer and tissue destruction in humans and animals.
Linked closely to the issue of low-level radiation is the question, "How safe is safe?" The question has yet to be answered with any great clarity. Tests and measurements differ in their methods and outcomes in determining the answers. The problem is further complicated when other probable causes (nuclear and non-nuclear) enter into the estimations of hazard and safety. Without an extended history of total reactor operating hours, studies of populations, and accurate measurements of dosages received, the long-term biological effects of low-level radiation are not easily measured.
It is also necessary to ponder the question of the psychological well-being of those confronted with the reality of nuclear power. Nuclear accidents on a massive scale -- potential or actual -- contain within them the seeds of severe individual and community trauma. The inability of human beings to directly experience radiation and possible contamination heightens fear and anxiety and promotes what has been called the "what-if? syndrome."
The waste storage and disposal problem raises acute questions about health and safety. While various feasible technologies are now being explored, radioactive wastes continue to remain in a holding pattern as government and industry seek large-scale, long-term solutions.
In decisions relating to health and safety, the following areas need intense and continued attention: public education about nuclear energy as a fuel source, plant siting, emergency evacuation procedures, updating and revision of plant procedures, training of personnel, and waste storage and disposal.
B. Economic Concerns
The economics of nuclear energy are complex. Government, industry, the public, and the scientific community are all involved -- and occasionally bitterly divided -- in their concerns for the development and use of nuclear power.
As new and old strategies are evaluated, the costs of nuclear energy need to be placed in perspective. While fuel costs, such as for materials used in reactors are relatively low, other questions arise about overall costs.
Nuclear power, like other fuel sources, is decidedly capital-intensive. The process from licensing to "on-line" production can take from six to twelve years. Inflation, new regulatory demands, and the introduction of new procedures along the way can increase costs dramatically. Decommissioning plants which are no longer in use can also add to the price.
Cancellation of reactor orders has increased as industry gauges its abilities to make a good investment and consumers reassess the possible sources of their energy costs.
Through a history of defense and regulatory ties, government financial links to the nuclear industry are numerous. Would removal of government sponsorship be a possibility and if so, would this spell the eventual demise of nuclear power?
The capital-intensive nature of nuclear power, and the forms its physical plants assume, raise the issue of placement of energy sources. Currently there is much debate about locating generating plants closer to their places of distribution. Suggestions range from small self-sufficient neighborhood plants, to separation of generation and distribution,
to huge "energy parks" containing numerous plants. There are significant pros and cons in each case.
Is centralization or decentralization of power sources best able to meet energy demands and the requirements of nuclear power in particular? Is it either possible or desirable to strike a balance with the mixture of the two types of siting?
Just distribution of nuclear energy as a fuel source demands that we grapple with these questions because our decisions will most deeply affect the economically vulnerable: persons who are poor, developing nations, and those living in economies significantly affected by one or more phases of the nuclear cycle.
While realignment of energy sources is desirable at some points, the assumption of a major "limited growth" or "no growth" policy regarding nuclear energy could have a potentially devastating impact on various disadvantaged segments of society. Those such as the poor, the elderly, and the handicapped whose incomes are heavily concentrated on obtaining energy needs would be even further burdened. The issue of economic justice must be understood in the context of (1) the conflicting pulls of energy expansion and of energy conservation, and (2) the need to justly link those bearing the costs with those receiving the benefits of nuclear power.
What of the future? Is the nuclear option a fragile and dying technology or is it capable of continuing a role in energy concerns? Development of the "breeder reactor" and nuclear fusion may partly determine this as will the availability of large amounts of capital for the technological and safety needs of nuclear power. Increased public pressures for tighter safety measures make these questions and concerns foremost considerations.
C. Political Highlights
A discussion of some of the political aspects of nuclear power can be divided between the domestic and international scenes.
Whether here or abroad, commercial sources of nuclear energy require sufficient safeguards to prevent catastrophic accident and threats to national security. International relationships are additionally complicated by transoceanic shipments of nuclear products, reactor sales, and other potential for proliferation of nuclear armaments. There are several international agencies with limited abilities to regulate shipment, monitoring, and use of nuclear materials.
A sharp dilemma exists for American involvement in international sales of nuclear technologies. International markets are readily available for the promotion and sales of such products. Developing countries have particular interests in the possibilities of nuclear energy.
It is necessary to ask, however, if nuclear power can be justly marketed abroad. It requires large amounts of capital, extensive personnel training, provisions for accompanying technologies, and long-term investments. Many nations face problems in each of these areas. Furthermore, an emphasis on developing nuclear power can divert needed attention away from development of domestic fuel sources.
Decisions to remain apart from international markets, however, can relate to a possible weakening of our external and internal stability. Other nations continue to market and sell nuclear products. This can create a potential for political and economic liaisons which could endanger the United States. Furthermore, if the United States remains aloof from the production and sales of nuclear materials at the international level, it can encounter a technological lag that could prove also dangerous.
The just uses of nuclear power require close attention to the fine balance which exists between defense and economic needs here and elsewhere.
The ties of government, industry, and the public on the American stage have created a web of confusion. Regulatory and promotional aspects of government involvement in nuclear power have often produced a conflict of interests. Safety needs and profit motives vie for attention within the nuclear industry, and the public is generally ill-informed objectively to sort out the welter of opinion and fact.
Growing public involvement in nuclear energy debates suggests that the deeper issue is one of corporate power. This means that individuals and groups must continue to educate themselves and others to the realities of nuclear energy and its impact on the environment. The creation of large-scale means of distributing nuclear-generated power needs to be examined in connection with the individuals served, so that neither distributors nor recipients are compromised unfairly.
The nuclear fuel cycle can have some effect on the environment at each stage. Environmental comment and law emerge from the interplay of federal, state, and local decision makers who attempt to assess the impact of nuclear power. Loyalties and disagreements regarding such matters are frequently intense.
A Christian understanding of Creation and human regard for it calls for a badly-needed understanding of the relationship between humans and their surroundings. Often the needs and wants of many parts of our environment have small voice or none at all. This means that the human good, while not to be surrendered or deified, must be seen in the context of all of Creation.
"Hard choices" regarding nuclear power must be secondary to the ongoing struggles of balancing and reassessing human wants with the care and honoring of numerous delicate ecosystems of the land, air, and water. Neither human nor environmental demands are to be merely the means to an end. The process of seeking environmental justice for all is often painstakingly slow and ambiguous.
Decisions reached in the past show us now that obvious errors were made concerning the aesthetics, health, and survival of people and places: lands have not been properly reclaimed, ecosystems have been permanently damaged, and the long-range effects of radiation are now observed among persons who have had contact with radioactivity. Errors will continue, but an acceptance of the intricacies of responsible stewardship will promote -- not inhibit -- the courageous search for possible just uses of nuclear power.
E. Public Perceptions
Increased public attention to nuclear power runs the gamut from immediate disengagement to whole-hearted approval of the use of and expansion of this energy source. What influences these attitudes?
One important factor is the obvious regional differences in perspective. Certain areas of the country are involved with some aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle. The methods and functions of such nuclear economies have been poorly understood outside their borders and subjected to misinterpretation. Such nuclear economies in the western United States are generally supportive of nuclear power -- while often experiencing outside pressures to stand in judgment against it.
Those at other geographical points are faced with different problems. Regions may wish to explore other fuel sources and alternative means of generation and distribution of power that relate only minimally -- if at all -- to nuclear energy. They may also depend on the benefits of nuclear power while living apart from its risks and costs. In either instance, communities and economies face a conflict of varied interests.
Another factor influencing public feeling is that of security matters. Prevention of sabotage and terrorism is essential, yet the ensuing development of security forces at nuclear power sites raises questions of potential infringement of civil liberties.
As public interest concentrates more heavily on
energy, it is vital that perspectives on nuclear power be nourished by facts. Nuclear energy must not be regarded as a rampaging white elephant or a salvific portent of a Brave New World. Like other energy sources, its potential is both hazardous and beneficial.
III. THE TASKS OF NUCLEAR ENERGY STEWARDSHIP
If we are to use nuclear power, we must be aware of the possible resources available to us in assessing its place in our lives. How are we to best discuss the realities of nuclear power? On what sources do we base our decisions? Most importantly, we need to understand who is affected by energy decisions.
A. Education to Awareness
Despite the long history of nuclear energy in America, there is for the average citizen a dismal lack of information on how it works, which sectors of society operate and maintain it, and who is impacted by it. Reliance on the mass media is the main route by which the general public obtains its information on nuclear power.
Growing interest in nuclear power demands an informed citizenry who cannot afford a "leave it to the experts" mentality. Those directly responsible for nuclear energy need to continually enhance their expertise, but the public must not out of laziness, fear, or misplaced awe regard such a cadre as a "nuclear priesthood"!
Citizen involvement is desperately needed at all levels of government in the discussion and formulation of policy and guidelines relating to nuclear energy. A Lutheran understanding of civic and religious responsibilities and realities points to a clear link between the thrust for justice and the need to engage in decisions concerning nuclear power. It is essential that whenever possible, and at whatever government level available, we actively participate in energy problem solving.
Two areas in particular call for informed reflection: (1) the credibility and (2) the accountability of those engaged with this power source. Countless voices clamor for our attention on the issues of nuclear energy. How are we to assess them?
Credibility can only be gauged by an ongoing process of reading, education, and discussion. Likewise, in seeking accountability, there must be comparison and contrasting of information and an awareness of the biases of each sector relating to nuclear power. The search for credibility and accountability should be undertaken with the clear realization that each voice speaking about nuclear energy is pervaded with a mixture of interests.
B. Faith and Science: Foundations for Decisions
How do scientific and faith perceptions interrelate with one another on the issue of nuclear power? A Christian perspective will incorporate scientific knowledge and opinion. It is inappropriate, for example, to claim nuclear energy is unsafe while ignoring the proven risks that accompany every human venture. It is also naive to accept nuclear power without considering the possibilities of human error and sin which mark our attempts at energy stewardship.
We must have a clear idea of the values on which we base our decisions regarding nuclear power. We judge and decide on the basis of such Christian understandings as justice, individual and corporate needs, human fallibility, and the maintenance of the intricate ecosystems of creation. Forms of plant, animal, and vegetable life found in air, land, and water can be disrupted or destroyed if we choose to ignore the consequences of our energy decisions. Regard for such ecosystems, therefore, is urgent since each is a kaleidoscope of internal and external relationships which are all susceptible to change and damage.
Acknowledgment of human error is particularly important for the conclusions we reach regarding nuclear power. Neither we, our neighbors, nor our systems are perfectly or fully known. This kind of perspective allows us to use, or to refrain from using, nuclear energy as a power source.
Our statements on nuclear power need to be based solidly in the insights, predictions, and knowledge of those dealing directly with this energy source. In turn we are to share our values and beliefs in assessing such information and evaluations.
C. Justice for the Generations
Conclusions and decisions regarding nuclear energy have only partially-known implications for hundreds of generations into the future. Such issues with long futures are waste storage and disposal, catastrophic accident, plant decommissionings and the ecological and social impacts of this fuel source.
There is an intense need to be attentive to present and future energy needs. At best, we glimpse a fragmented vision of a richer energy future. At worst, we see possible chaos for future generations who might encounter the context of unstable social and geographic conditions when trying to maintain the nuclear inheritance we left to them.
The amount and duration of our use of nuclear energy must be determined with the future as well as the present in mind. Bearing one another's energy burdens in the search for justice requires consideration of the long-term effects of the decisions reached. With such possibilities before us, we must ask if the potential outcomes of nuclear power use justify our current maintenance of it.
D. Honoring the Vulnerable
Who are those most damaged by nuclear energy usage if this fuel source is mismanaged? A balanced use of nuclear power requires that we seek ways of protecting those most susceptible to bearing the costs and risks.
1. The Economically Disadvantaged
It is a fact that the poor carry the greatest fiscal burden of inappropriate energy decisions. The largest share of finances in a low-income household is devoted to energy needs. Most difficult for the poor are those energy interim periods of development and fuel transitions. During such periods, fuels and fuel distribution are in an experimental stage and society must bear such costs. These costs come on top of the normal energy prices that must be paid.
While new fuel sources are under consideration, care must be taken on behalf of the disadvantaged so that changes from present fuels to other fuel sources are not too abrupt. Disengaging present nuclear resources at an accelerated pace would be destructive to the poor and lead to further disintegration of life-style and societal structures.
2. Developing Nations
A ready market for nuclear power exists in countries with insufficient fuel sources or those finding barriers for exploration of their domestic fuel supplies. While export of nuclear technology has proven useful in some instances, there is a strong need for other supportive technologies to assist nuclear power. Availability of these secondary technologies is a serious problem in some developing nations. There is also the question of increased financial dependencies when such countries seek the vast amounts of capital needed to develop nuclear power. Problems worsen when countries lack the appropriate communications, transportation, and educational systems required for nuclear power production. Funds which are spent on nuclear energy might possibly be better spent in other areas of domestic fuel development.
When few energy options exist, developing nations often view nuclear power as a feasible reality. Their domestic, internal perceptions must take first priority over international judgments on energy development. On the basis of available evidence, each country must make its own decisions about this fuel source.
Should nations use commercial nuclear power, its defense-related potential opens avenues to membership in the so-called "Nuclear Club" -- those nations having demonstrated nuclear weapons capability. Each country must independently assess the use of the power or the weaponry possibilities in its own situation.
3. Nuclear Economies
Regional differences and vulnerabilities are sharpest within the United States in those areas where livelihood and life-styles are directly related to the presence of one or more phases of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Hasty decisions regarding the expansion or rapid disengagement of nuclear power could have immense consequences for the dislocation and disruption of such areas. It must be clearly understood by those living both within and outside of such economies that nuclear power affects all people, though in a variety of ways.
E. Partners in Understanding
What avenues for participation in evaluating and discussing nuclear power are now available? The following suggestions can be helpful in furthering the education of those interested in energy resources. Each congregation will find a multitude of opportunities to explore.
1. Regional "information mediators" can be of great importance in pooling and disseminating information on nuclear power. Such individuals can represent groupings of congregations. The immense body of literature in the nuclear field and the rapidly-changing energy field make such mediators essential for helping parishes remain current in the area of nuclear power.
2. Parishes can use the adult forum model to present a series revolving around energy sources, including nuclear power. This is a place to share and heighten the awareness of the different economic perspectives represented within the congregation. Resource people are available from all areas: industry, government, the church, the scientific community, education, and public interest groups. Panel discussions representing a mixture of viewpoints would be informative. Congregations could serve as a catalyst for inspiring further sharing and understanding when such diverse views are brought together.
3. Other aids for education include tours 6f nuclear power plants, interviews with those directly related to nuclear power, and use of available audio-visual and display materials.
4. An exchange of ideas and information regarding nuclear power can also be effected at the conference and district levels through present or newly-established groups specifically interested in energy issues.
There is a continuing need to listen, read, and evaluate the many available viewpoints. Sensitivity to regional differences and occupational relationships to nuclear energy are important. Lutherans in Wyoming, for instance, living within nuclear economies, view nuclear power from a vantage point quite different from that of their Lutheran counterparts in the urban areas debating the proximity of a nuclear power facility.
The use of nuclear power is a present reality. As Christians intent on the search for justice in energy usage, we need to understand which values and which facts provide the basis for our decisions regarding nuclear energy. What avenues are open to us so as to assure the well-being of our neighbor?
Nuclear energy is a complex energy source and the variety of its benefits and hazards confronts us with new and old and unanswered questions. As we struggle with these, we must strive for balance in a context of both energy anxiety and excessive rhetoric. It is necessary to realize that no energy source is totally risk-free or immune to human error. Benefits gained must inevitably be secured by the costs paid.
Nuclear power is neither an energy cure-all nor an inherently destructive technology. It is an energy source which can be used potentially for achieving justice in a world increasingly aware of the interdependence of its people and its power resources.
V. FURTHER RESOURCES
Bibliographic materials relating to nuclear energy are almost endless. It is necessary to be aware of the following characteristics of any materials used:
literature is profuse, rapidly outdated, frequently biased, and often highly technical.
Sources of materials are numerous. They come from various places: industry, the scientific community, special interest groups, and a wide range of government agencies. Various denominational and international church agencies have recently published materials relating to the uses of nuclear energy. Public energy libraries can be helpful in locating resource materials.