Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On the Papal Encyclical & Nuclear Energy

J.T. Rodriguez
The following is a guest post by J.T. Rodriguez, a communications intern at NEI.

In his recent encyclical about care for "our common home," the earth, Pope Francis had a lot to say. I was curious to see what he had to say. I had no idea if he had said anything on nuclear energy, but as it turns out, he has.

While there were many mentions about renewable energy resources in Laudato Si’, he does also say things about nuclear energy technology.

“These comments are not surprising from the first Pope to have studied chemistry, and who worked as a chemist prior to entering the seminary,” wrote Forbes contributor James Conca.

“It must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power,” wrote Pope Francis.

It is an interesting comment and not as self-evident as it first appears. Pope Francis says elsewhere that these technologies and other of men’s discoveries and creations can lead to bad ends if badly handled. As Spider-Man said, "With great power comes great responsibility," and the Pope makes it plain that emerging technologies can be used for good or evil.

There is a tone of caution: oversight, responsibility and accountability are necessary to the successful implementation of technologies like nuclear energy. Caution mixed with a little doubt: Pope Francis worries that “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”

The Pope and U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.
The American industry has shown the kind of responsibility mentioned here. If we allow that the Pope has subjective measures in mind, still, there are some objective measures that we can use to show this.

“In the U.S., commercial nuclear plants have been operating since the late 1960s. If you add up the plants’ years in operation, they average about 30 years each, totaling about 3,000 reactor years of operating experience. There have been no fatalities to any member of the public due to the operation of a commercial nuclear power plant in the U.S. Our risk in human terms is vanishingly low,” wrote Gary Was recently at Green Building Blogs.

Regulation also plays a large part in ensuring safety – you could call it a backstop to the industry’s own efforts. In fact, safety is taken so seriously in the U.S. that it is considered “an absolute way of life,” said Randy Edington, Executive Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer at Palo Verde. The safety culture and regulatory regime of the American industry is considered the gold standard around the world.

Clearly, Pope Francis’ priorities have nothing directly to do with the energy business. But it is interesting to see him take note of renewable energy sources and to not dismiss nuclear energy as a non-starter. The encyclical is extremely well considered and worth attention by anyone interested in the subject. The Pope has the ability to shape attitudes broadly, so one must consider the encyclical an exceptionally compelling document, whatever one may feel about its details.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Coincidentally, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan cited that same quote from Spider-Man in a decision issued yesterday. Small world.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The pope's home country has a relatively ok nuclear power program and the vatican has long been ok with nuclear power specially as a way to burn up plutonium from dismantled nuclear bombs (vatican is a funding member of the IAEA and the catholic church didnt join multi faith anti nuclear power movements in japan post fukushima).

The pope more or less skirted around nuclear power in the Laudato si (but you could interpret some statements about the "lesser evil" and short term stopgap solutions as possibly pro nuclear) has advantages. As it is, the laudato si only alienates climate change deniers and a few greedy capitalists. Both pro and anti nuclear environmentalists would support it. I think avoiding direct outright support or condemnation of nuclear power is a very canny move to avoid unnecessarily alienating people

jimwg said...

Till I actually hear him bluntly stating that nukes are a climate change remedy everything else is good as PC hearsay.

James Greenidge
Queens NY