Ethical Considerations of Nuclear Energy

Nolan E. Hertel, Ph.D., P.E.
Professor of Nuclear and Radiological Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology
(Draft based on the Power-Point presentation)

(I base many of my statements today on a Christian view of Creation and order. I will try to lay these concepts out as principles and then apply them to nuclear energy.)

What is the Relationship Between Man and Nature?

View of Nature

"The beginning of the Christian view of Nature is the concept of creation:  that God was there before the Beginning, and God created everything out of nothing.  From this, we must understand that creation is not an extension of the essence of God.  Created things have an existence in themselves.  They are really there."
- Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man:  The Christian View of Ecology.

So Nature has value in itself and it was declared good. God - not anything in nature - is the ultimate owner of all things! God is active in managing the affairs of nature – things continue as they are because of his continued activity.

The Created Order

All things including man are equal in their origin. Everything is created except God. On the side of personality, God created man in his own image. NOT physical image.
The pattern and plan of creation: Each step higher (the machine, the plant, the animal, and the man) has the use of that which is lower than itself… Each thing … utilizes the thing that is under it. Each thing is limited by what it is.


Arthur H. Compton (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1927) in Man's Hopes and the New Need  for Human Responsibility:
"We are a part of nature, comparable with all that we see around us.  In every act we obey the same natural laws.  We, nevertheless, are a most remarkable part.  We are aware of what goes on.  We can exchange ideas with each other.  Within certain limits we can shape the world about us.  We are free to create new structures, new ideas, that have never existed before."

Man alone can reason. It is rather obvious to the casual observer that we are different from the rest of nature. Man can change his environment. Beisner says that the best way to fulfill the cultural mandate may be to modify nature rather than leaving it untouched.
   Some information about God’s will for humans and nature is discernable from observing nature. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities --- His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been mad, so men are without excuse.”  - Romans 1:20
   Regardless of how fallen humanity is, Biblical Christianity affirms that everyone on earth can look at nature and know something about God’s will.

Man's Role

"As interpreted by Christianity, human life has its high value because man is a child of God, made in his image and beloved of Him.  Man shares …the responsibility for shaping the world and the lives of his fellow man." - Compton in "The Moral Meaning of the Atomic Bomb"

We can make choices. MAN can think and choose and is aware of right and wrong. In Christian theology these have been corrupted by the fall, which also impacted his relationship to nature.
Rational spirituality and morality - Man had intellectual, moral, and volitional capacities.
Righteousness and holiness - Man was originally upright and pure.
Dominion - shared in God’s rule over nature.

Everything in Its Order and Level

  • Everything in nature should be treated with respect<
  • The Creator deals with things as He made them
  • So we as humans are to likewise to treat each thing in its order and on its level.
    - In its proper sphere
    - This requires conscious action

Man is not subservient to the earth. A plant should be treated as a plant, etc. Things are not here by chance, they have real intrinsic value.

Substantial Healing (Schaeffer)

In a Christian worldview, the current state of nature parallels that of man

  • Man is in a Fallen State
  • Nature likewise is in a fallen state
  • In Christian theology, man awaits his full redemption but can have "substantial healing" in this life
  • Similarly man must treat nature with this idea of substantial healing

Imperfect man cannot do perfect works. Everything is a tradeoff. As a consequence, no perfect solutions or technologies exist.

What about this Substantial Healing?

Francis Bacon (Novum Organum Scientiarum):   "Man by the Fall fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over nature.  Both of these losses, however, even in this life, can in some part be repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by the arts and sciences."

The Dominion (or Cultural) Mandate

  • Man was instructed to cultivate and keep the earth.
    - Cultivate (guide, aid and increase the earth's productivity)
    - Keep (Guard it against unnecessary degradation)
  • A Stewardship role has been given to man

Given dominion. Genesis – “rule” over. It could just as easily refer to the free use and development of resources as to our responsibility for conservation. In Christian theology, Man was given dominion over nature.
Schaeffer’s chart points out the uniqueness of man in the created order. Beisner says that the nonspecific mandate refers also to free use of nature.
Considerable liberty regarding the ways in which we rule the earth.
Difficult scientific and practical issues are involved in determining how best to make the earth serve us.

Observations about this mandate (Beisner):

  • Not specific.
  • Nature belongs to God and the earth was meant to serve man's needs.
  • The mandate does not tell us what particular uses of the earth are best suited to man's service.

Responsibility Associated with Dominion

  • Man's dominion over nature does not entitle him to to exploit them, but treat things as held in trust
  • "Man has dominion; he has a right by choice, because he is a moral creature, a right by choice to have dominion. But he is also by choice to exercise it rightly."
    Schaeffer (Pollution and the Death of Man)
  • Because Man is fallen, he may also exploit nature

Man has often exercised this dominion wrongly. What is stewardship? That a man be found trustworthy. We cannot make our own universe. Dominion and Sovereignty are not the same.
Unlike the rest of creation, man is called upon his relationship to nature to consciously treat the thing that is under him on the basis of what God made it to be. Because man is fallen, he exploits created things.

We are to honor nature to the highest level possible without sacrificing man!
Animals cannot consciously limit themselves!
The animal simply eats the plant. He cannot change its situation or properties. The man, on the other hand, has to accept limitations, but nevertheless is called upon in his relationship to nature to treat the thing that is under him consciously, on the basis of what God has made it to be. The animal, the plant must do it; the man should do it.”

“No animal has ever produced a work of art.”

The Place of Nuclear Energy

  • Most common energy source in the universe.
    - If nuclear energy were to be "outlawed from the universe, there would be only a dead universe.
    - Sure other forms of energy are derived from it in nature (coal, wood, etc.
  • So nuclear energy is an integral part of Nature.
  • Apparently we are intended to use nuclear energy.

Radioactive Waste

  • It is an integral part of the nature
  • Uranium, thorium and potassium-40 are distributed throughout creation.
    - Heat generated by their decay has given the earth's crust its plasticity and geological dynamism
    - Planet is inhabitable because of the heat/warmth


  • Man cannot come with perfect technical solutions
  • Man must manage resources and protect the environment
    - But not sacrifice man for nature
  • Nuclear energy and radioactivity is part of the created order

No Perfect Solutions

"It is a false assumption that the production of energy by any means can occur without affecting the environment.  Every energy sources has its own set of benefits, costs, risks, and uncertainties, which must be evaluated as objectively as possible."
"… lack of energy production may lead to such a chaos of unemployment, economic deprivation, and social unrest that human qualities may be destroyed in the midst of a "preserved" environment."
- R. H. Bube, "Energy and the Environment:  Christian Concerns on Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Warfare"

A program that might be suitable in a perfect and sinless world is not liable to last very long in the real world in which we live…..

So we are left with choosing the best way to produce energy? 

An assessment of benefits and costs is needed.

Defining Best

  • Koen defines the engineering method
    - The strategy for causing the best change in a poorly understood situation within the available resources.
  • We are now largely faced with questions of minimizing the maximum impact on nature and doing things within limitations

All technical solutions are imperfect. Discussion of THE Method: Conducting the Engineer’s Approach to Problem Solving. All constraints cannot be met simultaneously in an optimized manner.
“To be human is to be an engineer.”
An optimum solution is sought.

Availability of energy impacts the quality and length of life.

Per Capita GNP: USA - $20,910; India - $321
Income spent on food: USA - 10%; India - 51%
Life Expectancy: USA - 76 years; India - 57 years
Infant Mortality: USA - 10; India - 84 (deaths per 1000 births)
Literacy: USA - 98%; India - 52%
Electricity Consumption per capita: USA - 12,227; India - 338 (kWh/person)

From Alan Waltar’s book - data from time period around 1990.


  • Safety ( nuclear accidents)
  • Radiation
  • Waste Disposal
  • Nuclear Proliferation
  • Some object to the specialized expertise involved, the so-call "nuclear priesthood"
  • In it present form, it is not an exceedingly long-term source of energy.

Advantages of Nuclear Fission Energy

  • Concentrated source of power
  • Actual Safety record is substantially better than that of competitive means to generate energy
    - Industrial accident rate is about 1/3 of general industry in the United States
  • Low Environmental Impact
  • No competing use for uranium

US reactors have three safety barriers. The question is not is it absolutely safe but how safe is it compared with other alternatives.

Inhaber Study (Canada)

Assessed the safety of different electricity generating options while looking at the total energy balance:

  • Natural Gas was the safest all around
  • Nuclear energy was a close second
  • Oil, coal and solar were 10 times more dangerous

Waste Issue

"Now such plagues and epidemics occur, by and large, only among peoples privileged to live in more 'natural' pretechnological circumstances …."
-  Letty Lutzker

“Eradication of the plagues and epidemics that ravaged the civilized world in less sophisticated times should have taught the lesson that wastes, though dangerous if left lying around unmanaged, especially upstream, could be safely handled if properly handled. Instead of practicing ‘source reduction’ by ceasing to eat, or quaking before the invisible specter of disease-carrying ‘night humors,’ some of our forebearers fortunately invented sewage isolation and treatments instead"

The Waste Issue in Perspective
(at US generation rates)

- One ton of HLW per year for a city of a million people from a NPP – assumes reprocessing.
- If Americans received all their electricity from nuclear energy, rather than the 21% we now receive, three small marbles of HLW would be generated per person per year.
- An equal power level coal plant generates wastes that is 5 million times larger by weight. Largely flash, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. It is billions times larger by volume.
- Trace amounts of uranium and thorium are present in all coal deposits. Flash discharges appreciably more radioactivity into the stack and the surrounding environment.
- Scrubber residue constitutes a waste volume that is 10,000 times larger than the HLW from a nuclear plant.


  • Still responsible stewardship requires an informed and careful assessment of risks.
  • When it comes to risk there is no such thing as zero
  • When it comes to safety there is no such thing as 100%
  • No risk is the highest risk

In US chances of dying in an automobile accident is 1/10,000. US is consumed with risk.

Aaron Wildavsky on risk in the U.S.,
"No risk is the highest risk.” How extraordinary! The richest, longest-lived, best-protected, most resourceful civilization, with the highest degree of insight into its own technology, is on the way to becoming the most frightened. Has there ever been, one wonders, a society that produced more uncertainty more often about everyday life. [Uncertainty about] …. The land we live on, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the energy that supports us….”

Letty G. Lutzker in ‘Making the World Safe for Chicken Little, or the Risks of Risk Aversion’:
“A recent poll indicates that the majority of Americans perceive themselves exposed to more risk now than in times past. Yet life expectancy is greater than at any previous time, has increased approximately 30 years since the turn of the century, and increased at a faster rate in the last 30 years than before.”


“…..some people are unwilling to agree that anyone should be required to accept any involuntary risk, however small, or however large the benefits… They are citizens who do not understand that trade-offs must be made between benefits and risk: they want only the one, not the other. That is never possible. Every technical innovation involves some level of risks, and it is up to society by methods of environmental impact analysis to be certain that the benefits do outweigh the risk…. While it is true that many new risks have resulted from technological developments, it is also true that modern technology has given us longer lives than in former times, with far fewer days of disability due to sickness during our productive years.”  - Eisenbud

“Modern technology has of course introduced new dangers of many kinds. However, many of the environmental problems of former times have been reduced or eliminated. As a result, the average person lives longer, has more wealth, more leisure time, and access to a greater variety of beneficial mental and physical recreation than at any time in history. It has always been true that every technological innovation has been associated with new environmental risks, while also providing social benefits. The task that faces society is to be certain that the benefits outweigh the risks, and this has become more difficult because, as we will see, the human population is now of enormous size and has developed technological resources that may be destructive to an unprecedented degree. To continue advances in technology that improve the quality of our lives, while at the same time avoiding the detrimental by-products of progress should be the goal of modern environmentalism.”  - also Eisenbud

Dollars Per Life Saved (1990)

Lost Life Expectancy in U.S.

Average amount by which one’s life is shortened by encountering a particular risk. One year of unemployment translates into an LLE of 500 days. This is equivalent of smoking 10 packs of cigarettes a day.
Energy LLE - risks from not having considerable power are geater. 10, 000 Americans die prematurely due to the use of coal -- however it is one at a time and largely unnoticed.

Activities Estimated to Increase Death Risk by One in a Million

  • Smoking 1 cigarette (Cancer, heart disease)
  • Drinking 1/2 liter of wine (Cirrhosis of the liver)
  • 2 days in New York or Boston (Air pollution)
  • Traveling 30-60 miles by car (Accident)
  • 6000 miles by jet (Cancer via cosmic radiation)
  • 40 tsp peanut butter (Liver cancer by alfatoxin B)
  • Drinking 30 cans diet soda (Cancer by saccharin)
  • Chest x-ray in good hospital (Cancer by radiation)
  • Living 150 yrs w/in 20 mi nuclear power plant (Cancer by radiation)

World Energy Perspective

Energy Consumption in 2050 (EJ)

Relative World Energy Resources

U.S. Nuclear Power Plants

Clean Energy Sources in the United States

Nuclear:  The Clean Air Energy

Ethics of Not Choosing Nuclear


  • The Christian worldview affirms that nature has value and we know something about man's intended role in nature
  • Since the state of man and Creation is less than perfect, life is lived as a balance of risk and reward
  • The reward for safely and responsibly using nuclear energy far outweighs the risk of not doing so.

The Age of Simplification

Daniel Moynihan's farewell address to the President's cabinet in 1970:
- "a century ago the Swiss Historian Jacob Burchkhardt foresaw that ours would be the age of the 'Great Simplifiers' and that the essence of tyranny was the denial of complexity.  He was right.  This is the single great temptation of our time.  It is the great corruptor, and must resisted with purpose and energy."

The Weapon Question Always Comes Up!

“The morality of the atomic bomb is identical with the morality of war. War is nasty, brutal, and the inspirer of lasting fear and hate. It is an evil, whose elimination is a major goal of Christendom. Yet to avoid war should one sacrifice that which makes life itself of value, freedom to combat evil and to work for what one deems right, the opportunity of a world to seek after God? Should one, for fear of committing the sin of killing, permit one’s neighbors to be enslaved or killed by a ruthless conqueror?
   Having accepted war as the lesser evil, one seeks appropriate principles on which to base one’s military actions. The primary objective of warfare among civilized nations is not, as is frequently supposed, to destroy the enemy. It is rather to destroy the enemy’s will to resist, with minimum loss to one’s own nation and nor more damage to the enemy than necessary. No civilized army considers revenge as its function.”

   “The German physician, Georgius Agricola, in his classic book about metal mining, devoted several pages to a defense of mining in response to concerns that metal was being used to kill: ‘Several good men’, he wrote in 1956, ‘have been so perturbed by these tragedies that they conceive an intensely bitter hatred towards metals, and they wish absolutely that metals had never been created, or being created, that no one had ever dug them out." - Merril Eisenbud (How Clean is Clean? How Safe is Safe?)

When Compton decided to work on the Atomic Bomb, he said, “As long as I am convinced, as I am, that there are values worth more to me than my own life, I cannot in sincerity argue that it is wrong to run the risk of death or to inflict death if necessary in the defense of those values.”

“The atomic bomb is simply a cheap and easy way of producing the destruction which had previously come from other weapons. The damage done to Tokyo by standard-type bombs was greater than that done to Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and the number of people killed was roughly the same.”

1946 “It is yet too early to say whether the moral historian, if there be one a thousand years hence, will record the use of the atomic bomb as the work of the world’s guardian angel or as that of the devil bent on man’s destruction. Under the cruel conditions imposed by war, recognition that withholding the bomb would mean in all probability the death of more millions of people and the extension of the war’s agony for perhaps another year made the choice to blot out two cities seem the lesser evil.”

I don’t think this has anything to do with the issue. Technology can be used in a variety of ways – for good or for evil. It appears to me that we should consider the atomic bomb simply as an unusually effective method of destruction. Destruction is destructive. Man’s main task, as I see it, is to build, not to destroy; but it cannot be denied that destruction also is sometimes essential in order that construction can proceed.”

“After WWI some historian reminded us that the weapon which had taken the most human lives was the Roman sword. I do not know whether after WWII this statement would remain quantitatively correct. “

So war is war. Weapons in themselves are not evil, the users of them are.

BUT a Nuclear Reactor IS NOT A WEAPON?


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