For nearly fourteen years the world has been living with a force which was thrust upon it in most dramatic and devastating circumstances. These circumstances have never left the consciousness of the public, even though the force itself and the understanding of nature which it involves has long since been turned to the good of mankind in diverse areas such as food, health, and power. It is indeed unfortunate that all of the scientific energy could not have been directed to these peacetime uses of nuclear energy. However, because of the circumstances of its first use, and because of the lack of understanding about the nature and potential benefits of this force, a vague fear remains that this tremendous power may either get out of control or may give rise to some unknown insidious danger. (Even Einstein publicly remarked about this possibility.) Although the fear of an uncontrolled explosion and the fear of radiation are quite nebulous, perhaps the level of fear and anxiety is directly related to its nebulosity. The difficulty lies not only in the presumed possibility of a completely incomprehensible explosion but in the fears of radiation—invisible, unheard, unsmelled, untasted, and unfelt—a force apparently infinitely powerful, yet coming from an almost infinitely small source and apparently uncontrollable.
Anxiety In The Pulpit
The pulpit reaction to these problems has doubtless varied as greatly as in any other forum of discussion, but certain predominate themes are observable.
One of these recurring ideas, both in pulpit and in popular discussions, has to do with the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction set off by the simultaneous explosion of either an undetermined number of ordinary fission or fusion weapons or the potential development of such a powerful weapon that an error in the scientists’ calculations could lead to a global holocaust and man’s extinction. This situation is frequently described in terms of 2 Peter 3:10–13 in which the universe is envisioned as “melting with a fervent heat.” One theological point of view considers this verse a direct prophecy of a possible man-made nuclear catastrophe bringing about the end of the universe.
Part of the reasoning leading to this point of view lies in the succession of “improvements” in nuclear weapons. The A bomb, the H bomb, the so-called C bomb or a “Z” bomb have caught the fancy of many writers and speakers. Many misconceptions exist in the popular mind, however, as to what is involved in these “improvements.” For example, the cobalt bomb has been discussed widely as a more powerful weapon that could obliterate great portions of the world. But the cobalt bomb in 1951 was not suggested as a super-powerful weapon, only as the ultimate in “dirty” weapons, that is, a weapon with tremendous quantities of radioactive fallout. It is doubtful if this weapon has ever been seriously considered by any military planner, since it would involve as much hazard for the delivering as for the recipient groups. Another popular misconception is that if the power of a weapon becomes, say, a thousand times greater than before, the damage in turn would extend a thousand times farther. Actually the damage would increase by ten times. There is no mistake that a powerful nuclear weapon delivered on a large city would kill and maim millions of people. However, the prevailing belief that we are concerned with direct destruction on entire continents with any type of nuclear weapons conceivable is not scientifically acceptable. The emphasis on military work at the present time is the preparation of “clean” weapons.
It is clearly impossible to assess all facets of the weapons problem even if we possessed the proper information. One fact which stands out among all others is that scientifically the possibility of an uncontrollable conflagration which could give rise to the symbolism in II Peter has, as Dr. Eugene Rabinowitch, editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, says in the issue of September 1957, “ceased to be controversial.”
Cursory examination of current discussions makes it evident that other aspects of the problem have not lost their controversial character and appear to be confused in the public mind with the atomic bomb anxiety. These have to do with the radioactivity produced in nuclear weapons tests. In a pamphlet issued by the World Health Organization there is the statement that since the “fear of the physical chain reaction has been proved groundless, the nonscientific public has fostered another fear—the fear of the biological chain reaction” (“Mental Health Aspects of the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy,” World Health Organization Technical Report Series No. 141, Geneva, 1958). This involves the introduction of radioactivity into various parts of the biological life chain and gives rise to fears not only as to the individual’s own safety but also his children, and hence there may be a loss of a sense of self-perpetuation.
Views Of Radioactivity
Since it is impossible to do more than mention the problem here, an outline of areas of agreement and disagreement among scientists concerned with this field may be helpful. These have been summarized by Dr. Rabinowitch. Here are the areas of general agreement relative to biological hazard of radiation:
1. The present level of radiation from natural sources (e.g. radium in the earth and building materials, cosmic rays, the normal radioactive carbon and potassium in the body) may be several hundred times the radiation levels produced from the present rate of weapons tests.
2. The possibility of genetic damage due to radiation exists.
3. Unless bomb testing rates increase by a large factor, the genetic consequences for humans will be slight.
4. The possibility of physical (somatic) damage due to radiation exists.
5. An all out nuclear war could have truly alarming biological consequences.
There are also areas of disagreement among scientists relative to biological hazards of radiation (chiefly relative to somatic damage) which may be summarized as follows:
1. Is the number of potential malignancies (e.g. cancer and leukemia) proportional to the radiation dose down to a zero radiation dose? One group (primarily geneticists and biophysicists) believe the rate of the occurrence of malignancies to be directly proportional to the radiation received, and that there is no “safe” level of radiation. The other group (chiefly cancer specialists) believe that there is a “threshold” below which no significant number of malignancies would be produced. (This might correspond, for example, to the minimum number of TB germs required to give a person the active disease.)
2. What effect does this potential radiation damage have on the human race? One group estimates the number of possible malignancies which could be produced in the world in some time interval. Another group estimates the percentage of such cases over the globe and determines it to be difficult if not impossible to recognize this specific effect because of a thousandfold higher natural incidence.
3. What should the attitude of scientists, thinking people, and governments be toward the potential radiation hazards? One group believes that deliberate action of governments to produce this hazard is indefensible. Another group believes that the consequences, even if established beyond doubt, must be weighed against national defense requirements. One group sees no reason to deal differently with this problem than with other man-made dangers such as industrial contamination, tobacco, automobiles, or X-rays. The other group sees a difference in that these factors are largely localized and voluntary.
These points of disagreement bring two factors sharply into focus. The first of these is that we just do not have available as yet the scientific information to answer the technical questions posed, although a tremendous amount of work is being done both by the Atomic Energy Commission and other agencies. The present status of the scientific aspects of this problem are covered in excellent fashion in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for January 1958. (One can easily select data to bolster either position.) The other observation is that the real problems in this area are not scientific but are those involving value judgments, and values are determined by individual factors and identifications and not by scientific processes.
The Bible And Man’S Dilemma
To those of us who take our Christianity seriously the Bible has much to offer in helping us determine the relative values of different courses of action. If one believes that fear is an acceptable motivation for producing a desirable course of action, the fear of weapons—such as nuclear and biological weapons—makes a logical point of departure. If God is holy and if he is at least as powerful in relationship to us as these weapons, one may take the point of view that a man in his sins should rightly tremble in the presence of the living God. From such a point of view, these circumstances would drive a man to the Cross and to the forgiveness of his sins. If this point of view is accepted, it should certainly be divorced from an appeal to an assumed threat of the world’s physical destruction by nuclear means. It seems that whatever the divine eschatology may be, there is no scientific reason to believe that man will contribute to it in a physical manner. This point of view might be based on the belief that the “fear” of the numinous aspect of God is equivalent to a fear of the ominous threat of nuclear weapons. My personal belief is that we do man a disservice to exploit his fears and anxieties in an attempt to bring him to what we have experienced as a better and more mature way of life. We are told that “perfect love casteth out fear.” This should include the fears and anxieties of temporal life as well as future life. This need not be a denial of the realistic problems that confront us and the use of both our minds and prayers in reaching a solution. It does mean that it is possible to gain a dynamic serenity in the realization that the destiny of the universe is in the hands of God and not man. Our responsibility in a physical sense lies in showing the love of God by giving to men the myriad benefits of nuclear power and radiation, and thus promoting physical health and welfare. Most of all we must show this love by dynamic interaction with our fellow man in revealing the power of our salvation to resolve the fundamental problem of human sin. The resolution of this problem comes only through a personal experience with God through Christ Jesus.
Ralph T. Overman has been Chairman of the Special Training Division of Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies since 1948. Previously he served as Senior Research Chemist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He holds the Ph.D. degree in Physical Chemistry from Louisiana State University and is a member of the First Baptist Church of Oak Ridge.
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