Wisdom needed to avoid ecological disasters

Bob McKeon


September 8, 2014

This summer I decided to take holiday time far away from Edmonton. I went to Ireland with family and friends. While visiting Galway Cathedral, I stopped to browse in the cathedral bookstore. There I purchased an interesting book on Catholic ethical reflections on nuclear power titled Fukushima. It was by an Irish priest, Sean McDonagh, who is a leading Catholic environmental writer.

As I sat down, many miles from home to do a quick browse through the book, I came across a section on the Alberta bishops and their June 2009 statement, Pastoral Reflections on Nuclear Energy in Alberta.

This summer was the fifth anniversary of this statement. Critical ethical questions are raised related to a nuclear power plant that was proposed in the Peace River area. Significant issues were addressed including water consumption, storage of long-lived radioactive waste, stewardship of public funds and inter-generational justice.

The passionate debate in Alberta about the Peace River nuclear facility ended abruptly in December 2009 when Bruce Power announced that it would not proceed with the project.

The Japanese bishops say people are putting too much trust in technology without having the wisdom to know its limits.

The Japanese bishops say people are putting too much trust in technology without having the wisdom to know its limits.

At that time, the Alberta bishops (along with the Saskatchewan bishops) were one of the first hierarchies in the world to address the nuclear power issue in a critical manner.

The Vatican did speak to the issue at international conferences, but at that time was a supporter of nuclear power and promoted its expansion, especially in underdeveloped countries around the world.

Then came the Fukushima disaster in Japan in March 2011. First there was a powerful earthquake measuring nine on the Richter scale. Forty-five minutes later came a gigantic 50-foot tsunami wave which destroyed the backup power supply for cooling the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power station.


Three of the reactors exploded, spreading radioactive waste across the countryside and the ocean. Many of the thousands who had been displaced from their homes by the earthquake and tsunami have been unable to return to their home communities to rebuild because of high levels of radioactive contamination.

In a 2001 statement, the Japanese bishops acknowledged the positive contribution of nuclear power providing a needed energy supply.

However, having experienced the deadly power of nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they saw the potential of passing on huge problems to future generations. The bishops said that to use nuclear power effectively "we need the wisdom to know our limits and exercise the greatest care."

Writing a subsequent statement in November 2011, five months after the Fukushima tragedy, the Japanese bishops observed that "people put too much trust in science and technology, without having 'the wisdom to know our limits.'"


The bishops call for "the abolishment of all nuclear power plants in Japan." They call on the government to place "top priority on the development and implementation of natural energy," increasing public safety, while reducing CO2 emissions.

The bishops are aware of challenges in reducing available electric power supplies. They call on the people "to change lifestyles that excessively depend on electricity" and "to choose a simple and plain lifestyle based on the spirit of the Gospel."

Since the Fukushima tragedy, other Catholic Church leaders have addressed this issue. Bishops in Germany, India, the Philippines and Korea have raised public concerns about specific nuclear power projects in their countries. The Vatican, since Fukushima, is more critical about the expansion of nuclear power, especially in countries prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters.


A few weeks ago, I came home to Alberta. Today we are not having discussions about nuclear power in our province. However, we are very much in the midst of public debates about expanded oilsands plants, lengthy bitumen pipelines, fracking and oil tankers in coastal waters.

These debates take place in the context of pollution from past pipeline breaks, the disaster of the oil train explosion at Lac Megantic, and tailing pond collapse at Mount Polley.

The message of the Japanese bishops, that in the face of large risks associated with technologies in large industrial projects, "we need the wisdom to know our limits and exercise the greatest care," appears to me to be fully applicable to Alberta today.

Who are the "wisdom speakers" in our midst today? Will we listen now, or do we have to wait for disaster to focus our attention?

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)