As television images broadcast the horror that continues to unfold in northeast Japan from the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami, it is becoming clear that the resulting nuclear accident affecting several reactors in the region has the potential for an even longer-term impact than the twin natural disasters. 

While nuclear incidents have been rare over the last half century, the 1979 Three Mile Island close call and 1986 Chernobyl disaster show that when they do occur, the long-term damage to surrounding life of all kinds and to the environment can be measured not in months or years but in decades. 

In recent years, particularly since scientists began raising the alarm about greenhouse gas emissions being a probable contributing factor to global warming, the Catholic Church in the United States and abroad has become increasingly vocal on environmental issues. But for the most part, even while it has consistently called for nuclear disarmament, the Church has said little regarding the peaceful use of nuclear power, which has not been linked to climate change.

‘Difficult crossroads’ 

Which is not to say that the Church has said nothing. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2007, spoke positively about the potential benefits of nuclear energy. 

“The Holy See, fully approving the goals of this organization, is a member of it since its founding and continues to support its activity,” the pontiff told the IAEA on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. “The epochal changes that have occurred in the last 50 years demonstrate how, in the difficult crossroads in which humanity finds itself, the commitment to encourage nonproliferation of nuclear arms, to promote a progressive and agreed upon nuclear disarmament and to support the use of peaceful and safe nuclear technology for authentic development, respecting the environment and ever mindful of the most disadvantaged populations, is always more present and urgent. I therefore hope that the efforts of those who work with determination to bring about these three objectives may be achieved.” 

On the other side of the coin, some individual bishops’ conferences have been much more hesitant to endorse nuclear power or have even expressed outright opposition. In 2009, the bishops of Alberta, Canada, issued a joint pastoral statement on a proposal to build and operate a nuclear power plant there, raising numerous concerns, such as the tremendous water usage required, the potential risk to human life and the environment in the event of an accident, and the storage of radioactive waste.

Fears confirmed 

Going further was the Filipino bishops’ conference which long before the Japan catastrophe had opposed the proposed rehabilitation of a Bataan nuclear power plant that was built but never commissioned due to negative public pressure after Chernobyl. Bishop Deogracias Iñiguez of Kalookan, chairman of the Filipino bishops’ public affairs committee, said earlier this month, “What is happening in Japan right now has confirmed our fears.” 

So is there a disparity between the pope’s words and the concerns of bishops and some in the Catholic environmental movement? Not necessarily says Dan Misleh, executive director for the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, an environmental group partnered with the U.S. bishops’ conference, which has not adopted a position on nuclear power. 

“I think there are important qualifiers in the Holy Father’s statement to the IAEA and should not be taken lightly,” Misleh told OSV. “Those qualifiers are peace and safety as well as respecting the environment and being mindful of the most disadvantaged populations. So I think the questions for Catholic ethicists to consider are: Can nuclear energy (or any energy technology) be used for peaceful purposes, in a safe manner, respecting the integrity of creation, and take into consideration the needs of those on the margins?” 

Kathy Dubel, a justice and peace official for the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., said the Catholic principles of social teaching — particularly prudence, the option for the poor and the common good — offer a framework for considering the complex issues related to energy, whether nuclear, horizontal hydraulic fracturing of the earth for natural gas, deep sea oil drilling, underground mining or mountaintop removal for coal, or the more “green” options of solar, wind and biomass. 

“Those who support nuclear energy point to the fact that it is a ‘clean’ energy source, with a much lower impact on global climate change,” Dubel said. “On the downside, it is very expensive and time-consuming to build nuclear power plants, but produces less costly electricity once up and running. So it is not a quick fix when it comes to climate change, which is urgent now, and it presents obvious dangers such as a radioactivity leakage as we see in Japan and massive meltdown and wider radiation contamination, as at Chernobyl.” 

Dubel noted that the Japan nuclear accident, coupled with the offshore oil rig explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico, coal-mining disasters and other incidents, highlight the fact that virtually any form of energy production carries not only the potential of ecological devastation, but also the loss of human life and health for workers in the industry. 

But she remains hopeful some good may yet come out of all of it. 

“These sad disasters offer an opportunity to rethink energy production and consumption,” she said. “Our religious tradition has always urged restraint and moderation in the use of material goods. Since energy is needed to produce everything, perhaps this is a good moment to take stock of how changes in lifestyle can lead to a renewed sense of sacrifice and concern for the basic needs of the poorest brothers and sisters in our own communities and globally, as well as care for God’s creation.” 

Dennis Poust writes from New York.

Unleashed Energy (sidebar)

”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,” Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director general of the Vatican Television Center, said on the center’s weekly newsmagazine program in late March. 

“No one knows better than the Japanese what the effects are of energy unleashed from the heart of man rebelling against him,” he said, according to Zenit, an international Catholic news agency based in Rome. 

“The security of the plants and the safeguarding of radioactive material can never be absolute,” said Father Lombardi, who also heads the Vatican’s press office. “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.”