The world is responding to the horrible devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan with compassion and offers of help. The world is watching the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants, the releases of nuclear radiation and the potential for meltdown and now the difficulties at other nuclear power plants in Japan, with horror and fear. Horror at the unknown of what will happen to further harm the Japanese people, and fear of nuclear power. The spit atom is not just another source of energy, it is the image of ultimate power. For some, it is God’s power alone.
From the “Shuddering Dawn” of the first successful test of a nuclear weapon, the human capacity to split the atom and release its incredible power has often been imaged as grasping the power that should belong only to God, the power over all life and death. “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds,” quoted J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos laboratory that developed nuclear weapons, upon seeing the destruction wrought by the first nuclear weapon. Oppenheimer was citing from the Hindu epic, the Bhagavad Gita.
Winston Churchill called the bomb “the Second Coming in Wrath.” Christian fundamentalists such as Hal Lindsey, Pat Robertson and John Wesley White specifically identified the bomb with God’s judgment and world- destroying nuclear war with the salvation of the righteous.
Yet, fear that nuclear weapons can lead only to “Armageddon” is not theologically sound, nor is it the way the nuclear age has in fact progressed. It is true that God’s power is the power to create and to destroy, but this is also a power that God, in the Christian tradition, grants to the human being, the one created “in the image of God.”
As I argue in my book, Dreaming of Eden: American Religion and Politics in a Wired World, when human beings “fell” from the Garden of Eden, they were seeking the knowledge of both “good” and “evil,” the capacity to both create and destroy. Human beings are not gods, it’s true, but we are not all devils either. We have the knowledge of how to split the atom because human beings inevitably seek knowledge. It is who we are. We can use this knowledge to make weapons, and we can use it to create energy. We have done both. This much we know: it is within the capacity of human beings as created in the image of God to reduce the risks of the nuclear age. We have done this. But it has not been easy so far, and it will never be easy.
We have been trying to tame the atom ever since the first successful nuclear blast. With the rise of the idea of “Atoms for Peace,” i.e., using the energy generated by splitting the atom for peaceful ends such as lighting whole cities, the world breathed a little sigh of relief. President Eisenhower enthusiastically embraced this way to control the unruly atom and create an alternative fuel source for an energy hungry world. Unfortunately, not only did this redirection of nuclear technology inadvertently contribute to nuclear arms proliferation, it did not turn out to be, as Lewis Strauss, appointed by Eisenhower as one of the first five directors of the newly created Commission, predicted, “too cheap to meter.”
In fact, nuclear power has turned out to be expensive. There are ongoing problems with the storage of nuclear waste, with the relationship between nuclear power and the development of enriched uranium for creating nuclear weapons, and with the potential for nuclear power accidents leading to meltdown, as is the case with the reactors in Japan.
More fallout from the Japanese nuclear reactor damage and radiation release may be to the nuclear industry, not just in Japan but also around the world, and especially in the United States. It would be a mistake to give up on nuclear energy, however, just because it poses such difficulties.
Nuclear power is “green,” that is, it does not emit carbon and it does not contribute to “global weirding,” i.e. the drastic climate changes resulting from greenhouse gas production. The nuclear industry is working on technologies to reduce nuclear waste and on improving design. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants are forty years old. Numerous improvements are either on the drawing board or have been implemented in design since they were built, including how to build nuclear power plants that can better withstand violent events such as earthquakes. The events in Japan will be studied, and will contribute to the design of newer plants.
Humanity learns. We know we can get better at nuclear regulation, because we have. We know we can reduce nuclear weapons production, and prevent or even reverse nuclear proliferation, because we have. We know we can cut the cord between nuclear power generation and nuclear fuel production because we have taken concrete steps to do so.
But make no mistake, nuclear power will never be completely safe; human beings may be created in the image of God, but it is a fallen image. We can create, but we can also destroy, we can build better-designed nuclear power plants, but we may then build cheaply and regulate poorly. We can take the world to the edge of nuclear destruction because we have already done so, and someday we may take it over the edge because we refuse to find the way to peace. That is the created, fallen world in which we live.
Both Republican Senator Mitch McConnell and Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer have said that they are still open to looking at nuclear power despite the events in Japan. Let’s note, Senators, that “looking at nuclear power” expansion means not just “looking,” but passing legislation that puts the safety of the American people first, including intensive government regulation of the industry. For congressional wrangling and partisan politics that promotes the nuclear industry and puts the American public at risk from the failure to pass stringent regulation is, frankly, human sin.
This much I know: to fail to try to reduce greenhouse gases and put the creation at risk from “global weirding” is just as fallen as failing to regulate the nuclear power industry, reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation through nuclear technology and reducing and finally eliminating nuclear weapons. In all of this, it is God’s creation that is at risk. It is God we fail when we refuse to act like we are created in God’s image and control this awful knowledge that we have obtained.