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Issue Date:  November 9, 2007

-- Zuma Press

A child victim of the Chernobyl disaster receives medical treatment in an oncology center in Belarus in 1995.
The pope, the bomb and nuclear power


Pope Benedict XVI recently urged the abandonment of nuclear weapons, citing the genuine proliferation concerns this lethal and immoral technology represents. But during his July public address at Castel Gandolfo, the pontiff expressed a widely held but erroneous assumption: that the spread of civilian nuclear technology can help to alleviate poverty and even contribute to “peace, health and prosperity throughout the world.”

The pontiff’s remarks were influenced by his ongoing endorsement of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an organization that clings to the disingenuous view that a country offered nuclear power technology will happily split the atom to make electricity while promising not to develop nuclear weapons. However, because the technology required for “peaceful” nuclear power is a short step away from that needed to make nuclear weapons, surrender to that temptation is the most likely outcome.

This probability has been made crystal clear by the international anxiety over Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Iran insists it is for “peaceful” energy purposes. But no one can be sure. Enriching that same uranium to 20 percent instead of 5 percent gives Iran nuclear bomb-making capability. This is the conundrum of the inextricable link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

There is precedent for the concern over Iran’s intentions. India has the bomb thanks to commercial reactor technology from Canada and engineering expertise supplied by the United States. This not-so-peaceful use of the atom has led to a dangerously volatile situation between India and neighboring Pakistan, a country that also possesses nuclear weapons.

At least seven Middle Eastern countries are interested in acquiring a nuclear power program, once again leading to speculation that weapons production may be on their hidden agenda. Spreading commercial technology around the world also increases the odds of diversion or theft of nuclear material, even small amounts of which could be used for a deadly “dirty bomb.”

Every civilian nuclear reactor produces enough plutonium each year to make at least 40 atomic bombs. The radioactive waste generated by each reactor is so dangerous for so long -- tens of thousands of years or more for some isotopes -- that no acceptable storage or management solution has been found. Radioactive waste continues to languish at the reactor sites or in some cases is transported across the globe to be reprocessed. This dirty and contaminating chemical separation process produces yet more waste, much of which is discharged into the seas.

Radioactive waste discharge from reprocessing at the United Kingdom plant at Sellafield has rendered the Irish Sea the most radiologically contaminated body of water in the world. Seafood fished from the Irish and some Scandinavian coastlines is too deadly to eat. High rates of childhood leukemia around the Sellafield plant have been attributed to the exposures caused by reprocessing. Cancer clusters have also been recorded in communities close to the La Hague reprocessing plant on the northern coast of France where beaches have been closed due to radiological hazards.

Daily operation of nuclear power plants results in routine releases of radioactivity. The National Academy of Sciences has declared there is no safe dose of exposure to radiation. However, U.S. federal agencies have established “acceptable” levels of exposure based on what would be allegedly tolerable for a robust young male adult. One does not need to be a scientist to realize that the same dose inflicted on a pregnant woman and her unborn child would do far greater damage. Yet these standards have never been changed to reflect the greater vulnerability of women, children and the elderly.

The 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor remains the most tragic example of the health impacts of nuclear power and a grim illustration of the technology’s vulnerability to catastrophic accident. The Chernobyl disaster produced fallout with “400 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima, drove a third of a million people from their homes and triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancer,” reported National Geographic in August 2006. Birth defects continue to occur among children born since the accident, victims of their parents’ exposure.

Nuclear power is no panacea for poverty either. The industry has been heavily subsidized by taxpayers since its inception and the price tag for just one new reactor has reached a staggering $4-10 billion. Solar and wind power and other renewable energies, combined with energy efficiency and conservation measures, could provide more electricity at less cost, especially in poorer countries lacking the expensive infrastructure required to support a nuclear power program.

Pope Benedict’s devotion to the sanctity of life surely demands that he take the lead in calling for the total abolition not only of nuclear weapons but of the futile and frightening offspring it has spawned. There can be no more moral stand than rejecting forever the continued use of an energy source that has the capacity to cause death, disease and destruction to so many human beings.

Linda Gunter directs the media and development work for Beyond Nuclear. Operating under the auspices of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, the organization aims to educate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Related Web site
Beyond Nuclear

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2007

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