Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Post # 54: Faith and Nuclear Technology – The UT Baker Center Panel

It's been almost a month since I departed from ORNL.  Doesn't seem possible.  I believe I've been busier during the past four weeks than at any time in the past year!  You may have guessed this from my absence here....  In any even, "I'm back ..."  The length of this post will probably make up for my long absence (smile)...

Monday evening of this week I had the pleasure of participating in a public panel discussion hosted by the University of Tennessee's Howard H. Baker Jr. Center For Public Policy.  The forum, entitled, "Nukes & Faith - Discussing Religion's Role in Nuclear Society and Energy".  The forum was sponsored by the Tyson House Episcopal & Lutheran Campus Ministry, The Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, the UT Religious Studies Association, and the Baker Center.  Mark Walker and David Burman, UT graduate students in nuclear engineering and religious studies, respectively, were the able organizers and moderators of the panel.  My fellow panelists were Howard Hall (Governor's Chair Professor of Nuclear Engineering), Brandon Prins (Associate Professor of Political Science), and Jeffrey Kovac (Professor of Chemistry).

The UT Beacon ran an article today summarizing the  lively and sometimes provocative discussions.  Dr. Hall summarized the global status quo with regard to nuclear proliferation and some practical challenges associated with nuclear disarmament.  Dr. Prins summarized extant research on the role of religion in major conflicts, and Dr. Kovac presented a nice synthesis of the various factors that combine to influence one's world view.  Dr. Kovac and I were the two panel members who were explicitly asked by the organizers to discuss the role our faiths play in our approach to the challenges and opportunities posed by nuclear technologies. (Dr. Kovac is a Unitarian Universalist and I am an Evangelical Christian.)

The majority of the discussion dealt with nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear disarmament.  Nuclear energy was discussed to a somewhat lesser extent, though I focused much of my personal attention on nuclear energy.

So here is a condensed version of my comments on the major areas I was asked to address in the panel discussion:

1.  What is the Evangelical Christian framework for consideration of matters such as nuclear proliferation and nuclear energy?

A Faith or a Belief System that does not equip and enlighten one to address the most profound matters of life is not really a "Faith".  It's only a hobby.  An Evangelical Christian will approach the topic of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy (or any major issue for that matter) by first synthesizing the relevant Biblical context.  The Biblical context is then combined with temporal facts relevant to the topic.  So, what are the relevant Biblical principles?  Here's my personal list:
  • All humans are created in God's image, are precious to him, and have intrinsic dignity and worth based on this fact.
  • We are called to be good stewards of God's creation - including of course, this planet we all inhabit.
  • We live in a very imperfect world.  Humankind and all creation is fallen - corrupted by sin.  We have a "sinful nature" that places us in constant rebellion against God and our fellow man.  This corruption distorts our reasoning, motivations, judgment, and actions toward God and our fellow man.  Evil is real and exists in the hearts of men and women.
  • Left to our own devices, we are helpless to restore our right standing with God and our fellow men.  It is for this reason that Jesus Christ came into this world, born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, suffered and died on the Cross, and rose form the dead three days later – to pay the price for our rebellion and restore our relationship with a Holy God.  
  • It is by embracing the person of Jesus Christ and his finished work on the Cross that we are restored to a right relationship with God.  Evangelical's speak of this as the "Gospel" or "Good News".  We are called to share it with everyone.  Note I said "share with".  Not "force our views on" everyone.
  • Evangelical Christians are called to live in obedience to Jesus's teachings and Biblical doctrine regarding accountability to God and to our fellow man. We are to share the Good News, resist evil, promote peace, and minister to our fellow man.
2.  Can technology be intrinsically good or evil?

This is a really complicated question.  The technologies being discussed by the Baker Center panel were nuclear weapons and nuclear power.  One must begin by defining, precisely, the "technology" under consideration.  A nuclear weapon is a particular embodiment of a suite of technologies and knowledge bases.  Ditto a biological weapon – an integrated package.   If one takes the view a biological weapon is intrinsically evil because it is intended for one purpose - the taking of human life - one then has to question the study of microbiology, microbe engineering, etc. – because they are some of the essential enablers of a biological weapon.  In the case of nuclear weapons, it's the fission and fusion knowledge bases that are enabling.  These weapons could not exist without these knowledge bases.  However, the same knowledge base can be employed to end human life or save it.  At what point along the pursuit of knowledge and integration of technologies does something become evil?  Or is it simply the motives of the integrator or creator of a device?  Or is it like the statement often made about pornography - you know it when you see it?

The history and (arguably) the success of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is also a relevant anecdote.  MAD is a cold war doctrine practice by the US and USSR.  MAD basically stated that so long as each side could completely destroy each other, neither would launch an attack or provide an escalation of conventional conflict to the level that would trigger the use of nuclear weapons.    I am one of many who believe the enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons on the US and USSR sides during the cold war probably prevented a number of conventional wars that would have resulted in massive loss of life.  IF this is indeed true, it challenges one's thinking about the evil of nuclear weapons.  Is a nuclear weapon "evil" while it is sitting on a shelf, preventing the loss of life simply by its existence?

However, today's global situation is, in many ways, much more complex that the cold war situation.  More dangers and threats from more directions than was the case in 1960.  The US and Russia have made significant progress in reducing the number of warheads in our arsenals, while several other nations have joined the nuclear arms club.  And then, of course, there are the "sub-national" and terrorist groups...

3.  What is the Evangelical Christian view of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation?

Two of Christ's most relevant teachings are: (a) Luke 6:27 "But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you..." (ESV); and (b) Luke 10:27 "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." (ESV)  Another relevant teaching is James 4:17 "So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." (ESV)  I also believe Paul's teaching in Romans Chapter 13:1-5 regarding the ordained role of governments to "bear the sword" and be an agent for good is relevant.

So, what am I to do when my "enemy" (whom I am to "love, do good to") and my "neighbor" (whom I am to "love as myself") are harming or killing each other?  What am I to do when two neighbors (whom I am to love) are killing each other?  What about when an "enemy" or a "neighbor" threatens to kill, inflict suffering on, or otherwise oppress the citizens of an entire country?

Love does not mean allowing someone to do whatever they wish - to themselves or to others.  Love  means acting in the best interests of others.  If I have it within my power to prevent or stop killings, oppression, or suffering, when does Biblical doctrine require me to act?  Christian theologians have wrestled with this issue for two thousand years.  St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both offered considered views on the matter.  Today, the "Just War Doctrine" traces it's origin in part to their thinking.  Though too complex to discuss here, I believe, the Just War doctrine encompasses a Biblically-consistent decision framework for the use of force against our fellow man.  However, it is far from perfect.  I believe it is rare for a war to meet the "Just War" conditions.  It is even more rare for a conflict that began as a "Just War" to continue to meet the conditions of a "Just War" as it progresses.  Again, we live in an imperfect world.  Sometime there are no good options.

Turning from the Biblical perspective to the more "mundane" global perspective, my view on nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation is similar to my view about carbon in the atmosphere - more is not better.  Though the "knowledge genie" is out of the bottle, it is right to work to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction and to reduce the numbers of warheads as global conditions provide opportunities to do so.

4.  What is the Evangelical Christian view of nuclear energy?

This is the easiest question of the four.  As I type these words, we are days away from the birth of the 7 billionth person on this earth.  One of the clear realities of our time is that the quality of life of an individual or a society is dominated by it's access to affordable and reliable energy - electricity in particular.  Electricity is the key enabler of access to clean water, sanitation, conditioned living space, and food production.  Currently, 25% of the human population of our planet has NO access to electricity.  Another 35% or so have severely limited access.  That's roughly 4 billion people whose quality of life and life expectancy is prisoner to the lack of electricity.

So how much electricity would be needed?  I've run the numbers.  Based on current per capita electricity consumption data, roughly 2 TW of new electrical generating capacity would be needed to raise the standard of living of those 4 billion people to that current enjoyed in the nation of South Africa (per capita electricity consumption ~ 5500 Kwh annually or an average of 630 watts continuously).  Two-three times this much would be required to raise the standard of living of these 4 billion people to that enjoyed in the U.S and western Europe (~ 12,750 kwh annually or an average of 1455 watts continuously).  The total global electrical generation capacity today is ~ 4.5 TW (4500 GW).  This means we need to increase the net global electrical generating capacity by almost 50% in order to provide the South African standard of living to these 4 billion people, and we would have to more than double the total global generating capacity to raise their standard of living to that we enjoy in the U.S.  This is a staggering challenge.

As a Christian, I feel we have a moral imperative to help our fellow man climb out of this energy supply "black hole".   Beyond that, I feel strongly that the imbalance in quality of life and standard of living between those who have ready access to energy and those who do not will become one of the most disruptive global forces at play through the balance of this century.  As a energy technologist, I'm convinced nuclear power is the only practical hope we have to address this enormous energy supply problem.

So there you have it... I've not related all the details of our Baker Center panel discussion, but enough to give you an idea of where I stand on these issues and why.