Caring For The Earth: Christians And The Environment

Peter Hodgson FAITH Magazine May-June 2003


Everyone who has watched the television programmes on planet earth, or on wildlife, or who has visited a botanical garden, cannot fail to be astonished at the variety and fecundity of the numerous species of plants and animals. All this was created by God, and He looked on it and saw that it is good (Gen 1.1; 1.31). He created it for us, and entrusted it to our care. This is a great responsibility, and we need to consider how best to care for the earth and its creatures, including ourselves. In an address in 1986, Pope John Paul II commented on this responsibility: “In the very circumstances of having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order; man must respect these. The problem of legitimate autonomy ofearthly things is linked up with today’s deeply felt problem of ecology; that is the concern for the protection and survival of the natural environment. The ecological destruction is a form of selfishness arising from the harmful use of creatures, whose laws and natural order are violated. The solution to the problem is the truth about creation and the creator of the world”. But how are we to care for the earth, while using it to satisfy our needs? Most of our activities harm the earth in one way or another. This is not a new problem, but has become increasingly urgent due to the growth of world population and the development of technology, which together put more pressure on the earth than ever before. We have to decide what uses of the earth are justified andwhich are not. There is fierce controversy about the proper limits of our use of the earth’s resources. Some say that we must not eat meat or meat products, and others extend this to fishes and plants. Without going into these discussions, one can perhaps start by saying that we should not partake in, or at least should severely limit, any activities that lead to an irreversible change such as the elimination of a species, the exhaustion of a mineral or pollution of the environment. We have a responsibility to future generations to leave them an earth that is still fit to live in. A particularly important problem, which is the main subject of this article, is how to obtain the energy we need without permanently damaging the earth. Practically all our activities,our light and heating, our transport and communications, our food and industries, depend on the ready availability of large supplies of energy. This is vital for the maintenance of our standard of living. How can we ensure that this continues into the foreseeable future, while at the same time caring for the earth? This is a complex problem, for several reasons. First of all, we are in the first stages of a severe energy crisis, mainly because the oil on which we rely will soon be exhausted. It is therefore imperative to find new energy sources. Secondly, in order to make wise decisions we have to know what resources are available, and evaluate their abilities to help solve the problem. This is different for each country and requires extensive statistical data inorder to discriminate between the important and the trivial. Thirdly, the whole debate is seriously distorted by vicious propaganda campaigns that have over the years so affected the public perception of the matter that a sensible policy is almost impossible to implement in a democratic society. In addition, there is no ideal solution. Every energy source affects the environment in one way or another, and none of them is perfectly safe. These effects have to be compared in order to formulate a wise policy. This can be done quite well for some effects of energy generation, but not for others. How can one compare the effects of slag heaps with those of windmills? How much are we prepared to pay to reduce these effects? To tackle the problem it isnecessary to consider all possible energy sources and evaluate them as far as possible according to objective criteria. We need to know, for each energy source, its capacity, reliability, cost, safety and effects on the environment. It needs to be emphasised that energy is precious and waste should be avoided. The more we are sparing in our use of energy, the less serious the energy crisis and the smaller the deleterious effects on the earth. Even with all practical energy saving, energy still needs to be generated. The problem is still there, but just postponed a little. At the present time, most of our energy is supplied by coal, oil and gas, with smaller contributions from hydro and nuclear. The latest estimate is that at the current rate of use, the oil will beexhausted in about forty years, the natural gas in sixty years and the coal in about 250 years. Coal is heavily polluting, and oil and gas rather less so. We are thus living in a uniquely favoured period of world history, and it will soon be over. If we continue to rely on coal, oil and gas, we face catastrophe. The effects of the coming shortage of oil are already being felt, and will rapidly grow, especially when demand exceeds supply, which is estimated to happen in less than five years. It is therefore of the highest importance to find new energy sources as soon as possible. It is extremely wasteful to burn oil. It is a complex chemical that is the foundation of the petrochemical industry. Without oil, it would not be possible to fly planes. As oilbecomes scarcer its price will rise and if there is no alternative we will turn again to coal. Coal is seriously polluting. Some coal is less contaminated by impurities than others, but a typical coal power station produces each year some 11 million tons of carbon dioxide, a million tons of ash, 500,000 tonnes of gypsum, 29,000 tonnes of nitrous oxide, 21,000 tonnes of sludge, 16,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 1000 tonnes of dust and smaller amounts of other chemicals such as calcium, potassium, titanium and arsenic. The solid waste has to be put somewhere; often it is put into the sea, destroying marine life. Some of it is released into the atmosphere as smoke, and eventually falls as acid rain. In time this renders lakes and rivers sterile and kills the fish, andweakens and kills trees, leading to deforestation and soil erosion. The recent report of the Royal Commission of Environmental Pollution estimates that air pollution contributes about 24,000 deaths and 24,000 hospital admissions per year in the UK . Most of these deaths are due to the burning of coal. If these coal power stations were replaced by nuclear, it is estimated that 16,000 of these deaths would be avoided (Nuclear Issues, September 2000). The carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by fossil-fuel burning power plants leads by the greenhouse effect to gradual global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change estimates that in the next hundred years the global temperature will rise between 1.4 and 5.2 degrees and the sea level will rise by about50cm. The temperature rise will alter the habitats of many animals to such an extent that they may become extinct, and the rise in sea level will inundate parts of many low-lying countries such as Holland , Bangladesh and the Maldives and some Pacific Islands . A book by the historian David Keys suggests that climate change may have already killed 100,000 people as a result of floods, with nearly 300 million made homeless (Speakers’ Corner, August 2000). Hydro has long been an important source of energy, especially in mountainous countries like Switzerland and Norway . It is however, limited by the number of suitable rivers, and is unlikely to provide more than about 5\% of world energy. Hydroelectric dams inundate fertile valleys, and dam collapses can kill hundreds orthousands of people. When the water level falls, bands of sterile mud are exposed around the lakes above the dams. This leaves nuclear and the so-called renewables. It would be better to use the word “diffuse sources” in place of “renewables”. What is important is not whether an energy source is renewable, but on whether it is available for the foreseeable future. This is the case for sources that depend on the sun, but also on those using materials that are so abundant that they are practically inexhaustible. The word “diffuse” also reminds us of an important physical principle, namely that what is needed is not energy as such, but concentrated energy. There is plenty of energy in the air of a room, but this is useless if we want to boil a kettle. Thesources called renewable are all diffuse; the energy in the sunlight, the winds and the waves is so abundant that if we could use it , our energy needs would be satisfied a thousand times. Unfortunately it is very diffuse, and so we have to go to much trouble and expense to concentrate it. We have to build many windmills, solar panels and wave devices and all this is expensive. Hydro is an intermediate case, since the valleys concentrate the gravitational energy in the rain. The diffuse sources, because these have to be spread out over a large area to concentrate the energy, are inevitably destructive of the landscape. We are now more conscious of the visual damage due to thousands of windmills, not to mention the noise pollution due to the rotating blades. Theycan be sited offshore, but this adds to the costs. Solar panels work best in hot deserts, but then there are the costs of transporting the energy to where it is needed. All these and many other factors conspire to make the diffuse sources expensive compared with coal or oil. The result is that they contribute a minuscule amount of energy at the present and for the foreseeable future. That leaves nuclear. Nuclear energy is extremely concentrated, and so a very small amount of fuel can generate large amounts of energy. Already nuclear power provides half the electricity of Western Europe , and substantial amounts in many other countries. Here we are principally concerned with the effects on the environment. Nuclear power stations, unlike the diffuse sources,take up relatively small areas of land. They do not produce any greenhouse gases, and so do not contribute to the greenhouse effect. The main concerns of the public about nuclear power are the possibility of reactor accidents, nuclear radiations and the disposal of nuclear waste. There have been several accidents to nuclear power stations, and the most well-known are those at Three Mile Island and at Chernobyl . The accident at Three Mile Island did not lead to any release of radiation, so no one was affected, although the physical damage to the reactor and to the reputation of nuclear power was severe. Much more serious was the accident at Chernobyl . This was undoubtedly a terrible disaster. The reactor briefly went critical, the power level surged upwards, thegraphite moderator caught fire, and a plume of radioactive smoke went high into the atmosphere and spread over all Europe . The important point for us is whether such an accident could happen to any existing nuclear power station. The answer is definitely no. The Chernobyl reactor was built to a basically unsafe design that would never be accepted now. On the night of the disaster the operators decided to make an experiment that mainly concerned the electrical generators. This required the reactor to run at low power, and they realised that this might result in the reactors being automatically shut down and ruin their experiment. So they switched off the safety circuits, and disaster followed. Heroic efforts were made to control the reactor, and many of the firefighters received lethal doses of radioactivity. A total of 33 deaths resulted, and since then another 12 have died from delayed effects. The radioactivity spread over Europe was at such a low intensity that it caused little damage. The area around the reactor remains quite highly radioactive, and many people who were evacuated from their homes are still not allowed to return. There are still many stories in the Press about the damage due to the radioactivity, and many detailed studies have been made. The United Nations General Assembly in April 1999 stated: “Apart from the substantial increase in thyroid cancer after childhood exposure, there is no evidence of a major public health impact related to the ionizing radiation 13 years after the Chernobylincident. No increase in overall cancer incidence or mortality that could be associated with radiation exposure have been observed. Risk of leukaemia, one of the most sensitive indicators of radiation exposure, is not elevated, even among accident-recovery workers or in children. There is no scientific proof of an increase in other non-malignant disorders, somatic or mental, that are related to ionizing radiation”. This statement was reiterated at an international conference sponsored by the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Ministry concerned with environmental monitoring in Moscow in May 2000. It should be added that the thyroid cancer mentioned above is readily curable (Nuclear Issues, December 2000).

Concerning radioactive hazards, it should first be remarked that we are all exposed all the time to a low level of nuclear radiation. Some of the atoms in our own bodies are radioactive. We are continually exposed to the cosmic radiation and to radiation from the radioactive materials in the earth. Some of us receive radiation in the course of medical diagnosis and treatment. This level of radiation causes us no detectable harm. Some places have a higher level of background radiation, as it is called, than others. For example, areas with granitic rocks such as Cornwall have levels more than twice the rest of the country and this makes no difference to the health of people living there. We never bother about this when we plan our holidays. Thisemphasises that when talking about radioactive hazards it is essential to give the dose, or otherwise it is impossible to know whether it is likely to be dangerous or not.

It is well-known that very large doses of nuclear radiation can cause serious injury or death, as indeed happened in 1945 in Japan , and in some subsequent accidents. What are not known are the effects of very small doses? It is sometimes assumed that the hazard is proportional to the dose, and this is used to estimate the effects of small doses on large populations. This is contrary to our knowledge that substantial variations in the background level do not support this, and ignores the likelihood that the body can repair any damage due to small doses. There is even some evidence that very small doses of radiation are beneficial. Reliance on proportionality leads to the large numbers that are sometimes quoted as the result of radioactive releases. Thus theBBC has claimed that thousands of people have died as a result of the Chernobyl accident, whereas the real figure is 45, as already mentioned. A complaint was made to the BBC, and they accepted that they had made a serious error, and the BBC New Editor was told the true state of affairs (SONE, August 2000). This is an example of the frequent distortion of the news even by the BBC, to say nothing of the Press and other media. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiations has estimated the average radiation doses in the year 2000 from various sources (expressed in millisieverts): Natural background 2.4; diagnostic medical examination 0.4; Chernobyl accident 0.002, nuclear power production 0.002 (Nuclear Issues, June 2000). In spite of suchfigures, people worry about the radiation from nuclear power stations, but not about taking a holiday in a place where the natural background is several times the figure given above (Nuclear Issues, May 2000). During the period 1969-1986 there were over 6000 deaths due to oil related accidents, over 5000 from hydropower, nearly 4000 from coal and over 3000 from gas. These figures are to be compared with the 45 from Chernobyl (Nuclear Issues, June 2000).

As another illustration of the effects of radiation, the Danish Minister of the Environment has criticised the Sellafield nuclear plant for releasing the isotope technicium into the sea. In the Kattegat the radiation level is between two and three Becqueresl (Bq) per cubic metre, and 0.1 Bq/kg is found in fish and 20-25 Bq/kg in lobsters. If a fish-lover consumes 50kg of fish and 20kg of shellfish per year, the radiation dose is about 0.14 microsievert. For comparison, a person inside a typical Danish house will get a dose of 30 microsieverts; thus the dose from the air is about 200 times that from the fish. Furthermore, all fish and shellfish contain polonium 210, and this gives a dose About 300 times that from the technicium.

It has been claimed that the Irish Sea is the most radioactively contaminated in the world. In fact, measurements show that the eastern Mediterranean , the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea , where thousands of tourists swim every year, are ten times more radioactive (SONE, June 2000). In 1990 it was claimed by Prof. Gardner that the children of men who work in the nuclear industry have a higher chance of developing leukaemia. Since then, many very detailed studies have failed to provide any evidence for this. Thus recently a study of 20,000 children of employees of British Nuclear Fuels and the UK Atomic Energy Authority provided no evidence to support the Gardner hypothesis. A careful examination by Prof. R. Doll concluded that the Gardner hypothesis is false (NuclearIssues October 2000). These are just a few typical examples of the effects of radiation that are reported in a seriously misleading way, and have over the years led to widespread misconception by the public, and have increased the opposition to nuclear power. There is much public concern about the disposal of nuclear wastes. The uranium in a reactor releases energy by splitting into two pieces called fission fragments. These are highly radioactive and must be disposed of safely. The way to do this is well understood. The waste is first stored above ground for about fifty years until most of the radioactivity has decayed, and then it is fused into an insoluble glassy ceramic, encased in stainless steel cylinders and buried deep underground in a stable geologicalformation. There is then no likelihood that any of the waste will come into contact with humans. Nuclear power is thus able to produce electrical energy in large amounts with minimal deleterious effects on the environment. Its costs compare very well with those of other energy sources, and this situation is likely to improve during the coming years as oil and natural gas become exhausted. In addition, they will become less favoured as their pollution, and that due to coal, becomes more widely recognised. Every time a nuclear power station replaces a coal, gas or oil power station the pollution of the earth is reduced. It has been possible in this short article to mention rather briefly some of the ways we can provide the energy that people desperately need, and at thesame time fulfil our responsibility to care for the earth. More detailed information can be found in the books listed below, and in the extensive references they contain.

Our Nuclear Future? Christian Journals Ltd, 1983
Energy and Environment. Bowerdean Publications, 1997
Nuclear Power, Energy and the Environment. Imperial College Press, 1999

Faith Magazine

May - June 2003