Irish Times 6/3/2012
RITE AND REASON: I AM certain that the word prayer does not appear in any manual outlining how to deal with a serious accident at a nuclear power station anywhere in the world. Yet, prayer ran like a thread through the hour-long BBC2 programme Japan – Inside the Meltdown on February 23rd.
Key witnesses were interviewed who had been trying to prevent a catastrophe at the plant when a severe earthquake and subsequent tsunami swamped three of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
These included the prime minister Naota Kan, the director of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant Masao Yoshida, senior management at Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), army personnel and firefighters.
At some point, each one said that during the crisis, he was praying that a catastrophe could be avoided. One of the workers, dressed in boiler suit and goggles, described a conversation he had with this wife before entering the plant to attempt to open the vents.
He realised he was risking his life by entering into the stricken nuclear plant and exposing himself to deadly levels of radiation. His wife was naturally very worried, but as the conversation ended she said she would be praying for him.
Even though Catholics are a small minority in Japan, the bishops responded to the Fukushima disaster.
Auxiliary bishop of Osaka Michael Goro Matsuura said: “I believe that this serious incident should be a lesson for Japan and for the entire planet and will be an incentive to abandon these projects. We call on the solidarity of Christians worldwide to support this campaign.”
After Fukushima, statements from bishops’ conferences in Korea and the Philippines called on their governments to abandon nuclear power. This negative critique of nuclear power was not confined to Asia.
On May 26th, 2011, the German government published a document which was prepared by a commission of experts under the leadership of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, calling for an end to the use of nuclear power.
Writing in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on May 29th, Cardinal Reinhard said he felt “a technology that had incalculable consequences for entire generations could not be trusted”.
It seems very strange that the Vatican, which in other spheres preaches a pro-life ethic, should endorse civilian nuclear power.
At the International Atomic Energy Agency in September 1982, Msgr Mario Peressin, then the Vatican representative at the agency, supported the civilian use of nuclear power.
In an address he stated: “The benefits of peaceful use of nuclear energy should thus be extended to all countries, in particular to developing countries.”
He went on to accuse “certain groups of naïve idealists and even certain personalities from the scientific, political, cultural or religious worlds who condemn the use of nuclear power simply because there are some risks”.
So I was surprised and delighted that the Vatican seemed to do a U-turn on its traditional support for civilian nuclear power.
Msgr Michael Banach, the current Vatican representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, told a conference in Vienna on September 20th last that “this year’s nuclear disaster in Japan has raised new concerns about the safety of nuclear plants around the world”.
He asked whether nuclear power plants should be built and operated in areas prone to earthquakes and whether plants that already exist in such areas should be shut down.
“The long-term effects of the [Fukushima] disaster,” he said, “include economical, medical and rebuilding costs in one of Japan’s richest agricultural areas.”
It seems the Vatican has joined the ranks of “naïve” idealists!
Fr Seán McDonagh is a Columban priest, author and environmental activist. His forthcoming book, Is Fukushima the Death Knell for Nuclear Energy?, will be published shortly.