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A nuclear reactor in my back yard


A nuclear reactor in my back yardIn the 1980s, I bought my first house, a fibro cottage situated on the Woronora River which flows through Sydney’s Sutherland Shire catchment. The river cuts through Sutherland’s sandstone and eucalypt-covered escarpment and runs into the Georges River, then Botany Bay. It is better known as the site of the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor.

Over a quarter of a century later, my memories of life on the Woronora are still remarkably vivid. Just as vivid is my recollection of a meeting I attended at a hall in the Woronora village in 1980.

Speaking at this meeting was Sister Rosalie Bertell, a visiting American nun of the Sacred Heart congregation. I was surprised to discover that this wiry and gentle nun possessed impeccable academic credentials in several scientific fields. She was in Australia to take on the might of the nuclear power industry. It was a Rosalie and Goliath battle.

Before visiting Australia, Sister Rosalie had just completed comprehensive research irrefutably disclosing excessive cancer deaths in humans, particularly leukaemia, linked to exposure to nuclear radiation. The few staff members of the Lucas Heights Atomic Energy Commission who attended the meeting of local residents, reportedly to “keep on eye” on this troublesome nun declined to make any public contribution when invited.

Sister Bertell later testified before the Government’s Select Committee on Uranium Resources. She opened my eyes at that meeting to the dangers of leaked radiation, the problem of safely storing and transporting nuclear waste, and to the lack of an emergency evacuation plan for the local community. She shone a light on what had been a place of secrecy — the ‘big cracker’, as the locals called it.

The nuclear debate is gathering momentum. Should we dig more uranium out of the ground? Should we export it? And should we construct more nuclear reactors in Australia?

I am not a scientist, but as an environmental lawyer I have my own serious concerns about the morality of building more nuclear reactors in Australia and bequeathing untold quantities of deadly radioactive waste to generations yet to be born.

A nuclear reactor in my back yardRecently the Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery said that Prime Minister John Howard was wrong to say that climate change is not the major moral issue facing Australians. Many thousands of Australian men and women, conversant with the contents of the UN’s latest Intergovernmental Panel on climate change, the Stern Report on the economics of climate change, recent reports from CSIRO and the Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth would disagree with the PM.

Most authoritative scientific evidence demonstrates that the planet is heading for catastrophe and unprecedented human suffering unless we radically curb our greenhouse gas emissions.

For the almost one billion fellow humans that go to sleep tonight without adequate food or clean drinking water, the scientists’ dire warnings mean little. The struggle to survive another day is the only issue that matters. To remedy this situation is surely a major moral issue facing us all.

It might surprise many Catholics to know that the great Pope John XXIII as far back as 1961, raised his concerns about care for the earth. Subsequent Popes, including Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have all made impassioned addresses on the moral obligation of Christians to respect and protect the integrity of God’s Earth.

The late Pope John Paul II, in his many encyclicals, homilies, writings and speeches over 27 years, consistently called for a deeper respect for and increased nurturing of the planet’s ecosystems. In his 1990 World Day of Peace address, "Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation" John Paul II called for "urgent education in ecological responsibility" and added, "I wish to repeat that the ecological crises is a moral issue".

The Australian Catholic church has been actively involved in the environmental debate for some years. The 2005 Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter ‘Climate Change - Our Responsibility to Sustain God’s Earth’ refers to the phenomenon of climate change as "possibly the most critical issue facing humanity".

It goes on to say that, "Every creature, every species, the Earth itself, and the entire expanding universe display the grandeur of God. This means that the wonderful inter-relatedness that ecologists find in the biosphere on Earth, and the interrelatedness that science discovers at all levels from quantum physics to cosmology, is all sustained at every moment by the Creator. We are intimately interconnected with the whole life-system of the planet and the complex interaction between other living creatures and the atmosphere, the land and the water systems."

To the meditative mind, the original delight of the Creator continues to be palpable and all pervading in this unfolding of creation.

In the light of these passages, I have an uneasy feeling that in a nuclear power plant, the process of nuclear fission which involves the violent breaking open of a large atom (usually uranium 235) in order to release energy stored in that atom for thousands of years, fails to fully respect the natural rhythms of nature. It is difficult to imagine the Creator taking delight in a process that so blatantly disregards the call for the safeguarding of the integrity of creation as understood in the Catholic Church’s body of social teaching.

Renewable energies such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal energy, properly supported, harnessed and developed can surely provide Australians with climate friendly energy and increasing employment opportunities into the future.

Rather than export Australian uranium, let’s proudly export our innovative and clever alternative clean technologies to the world to ensure it is a safer and cleaner place.

In a Vatican address that John Paul II gave in 2001, he recalled the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. This disaster exposed some 5 million people, of which 1.2 million were children, to nuclear radiation.

"In recalling the tragic effects caused by the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, one’s thoughts go to future generations represented by these children", the Pontiff said. “It is necessary to prepare a future for them, without fear of similar threats,” he added. "This is a commitment for all. It is necessary that a common scientific, technical and human effort be made to put energy at the service of peace, in respect of man’s and nature’s needs. The future of the whole of mankind depends on this."



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Existing comments

Hooray for reading a religious point of view on climate and nuclear power! And, again hooray for acknowledging Dr. Rosalie Bertell. Dr. Bertell is still active in this fight for truth. Dr Bertell in the 1970s carried out the "tri-State Survey" which conclusively showed the health dangers of ionising radiation, and led to a more caustious use of X rays in medicine. I ma a recovered Catholic, yes, but I commend the Catholic bishops on their concern for the environment. Yes, it is time for all Australians to wake up and again ask those hard questions about the ethics of the nuclear industry. Christina Macpherson www.antinuclearaustralia.com

Christina Macpherson | 31 May 2007  

Good on you, Colin. It is uplifting to encounter the depth of Catholicism's love for all Creation, as opposed to fundamentalism's ill-founded disdain for everything.
An enthusiasm for civil nuclear power, in a country that just doesn't have enough water to operate coal-fired, let alone nuclear power stations, can only be explained by a secret desire for nuclear weaponry; only that, and blind ignorance can account for a Federal leadership that refuses to empower (literally) its citizens by subsidising photovoltaic (PV) panels on every rooftop ... PV, wind, tidal and wave power generation are all renewable. PV, wind, tidal and wave power generation use no cooling water, so that all the rain that God gives us can be used here on earth to feed His people, rather than returned to the heavens.

David Arthur | 31 May 2007  

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