Emmy Janssen understands the mechanics of nuclear fission. As a physics student at Freie Universität Berlin, she says the math can be challenging, but she loves the way her studies let her wrestle with what she calls “the depth and breadth of God’s created cosmos.”
But she is not so sure, as a Christian, she understands her ethical responsibilities. She wonders about “our role as God’s children, bringing nuclear power into the world in the first place.”
Janssen is not the only one. Across the country, German evangelicals are weighing the ethics of nuclear power.
The government is set to decommission its last three nuclear reactors by the end of 2022. Shutting down Isar 2, Emsland, and Neckarwestheim 2 will complete the county’s Atomausstieg, or “nuclear power phase-out,” and conclude a generation of political debates. But the debates, like radioactive particles, have a half-life, and evangelicals in Germany are still discussing the problems of waste, the risks of catastrophic accidents, and the potential benefits of nuclear power.
Deciding on a Christian position is not as easy as turning on the lights.
“There are indifferent people. There are people who are deeply convinced nuclear energy is dirty and dangerous. There are those who see it as a possibility for protecting the planet and developing cleaner energy,” said Matthias Boehning, director of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Sustainability Center in Bonn.
Some of the differences appear to be generational. Older evangelical views have been shaped by both Cold War history, when the US and the USSR planned out nuclear attacks and counterattacks, and—of even greater concern—by the memory of nuclear accidents.
The German nuclear power program kicked off in the 1950s, producing energy for the nation as it rebuilt after World War II. The German anti-nuclear movement emerged around the same time, raising concerns about the destructive potential of atomic bombs and the incredible difficulty of handling nuclear waste.
For Markus Baum, a 59-year-old Methodist radio commentator for ERF Medien, that accident was a crossroads. He remembers listening to reports that the reactor in what is now Ukraine had melted down and ruptured, spewing clouds of contamination into the atmosphere. There were warnings about radioactive rain. He never thought about nuclear power the same way again.
“After Chernobyl, we saw the complications, the dangers,” he said. “We decided that the nuclear path we had walked had no future.”
Concerns about nuclear power grew. The Greens started arguing for an immediate closure of the country’s reactors. “Chernobyl is everywhere,” they said. They only won a few votes, but the argument became a permanent part of German political discourse.
In 1998, a new ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens committed to moving Germany away from nuclear power. The phase-out started in 2002.
When Angela Merkel became chancellor in 2006, though, she said shutting down the nuclear reactors was “absurd.” The power plants were not only “technologically safe,” but didn’t emit the carbon that drives climate change. Merkel, a center-right politician, had previously earned her doctorate in quantum physics. She understood the science and believed in the safety of nuclear power.
But Merkel changed her mind in 2011. An earthquake and tsunami led to three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and considerable radioactive contamination in Fukushima, Japan, dramatically demonstrating that no matter how technologically safe, nuclear power was always dangerous.
Merkel announced that all power plants would be closed by the end of December 2022.
Some younger evangelicals in the country, however, think Merkel was probably right the first time. They know the risks of nuclear power but feel they are minor compared to the ongoing damage done every day by burning fossil fuels.
Adopting what has been called an “ecomodernist” position, millennial and Gen Z creation care advocates point to increased safety protocols, advanced technologies, and the urgent need for an alternative to coal and oil.
“Nuclear is a clean energy possibility for them,” Boehning said at the World Evangelical Alliance. “They are being less ideological, more pragmatic, and present-oriented.”
Caroline Bader, cofacilitator of GreenFaith’s International Network and coordinator for its work with German faith communities, said this kind of perspective is short-sighted. Concern about climate change is not a good reason to return to nuclear power, she said.
“We demand universal access to clean and affordable energy for everyone, and nuclear energy is harmful in both regards,” she said. “It is expensive, dangerous, and not as clean as its advocates suggest.”
Even if there aren’t any accidents, Bader points out, nuclear plants produce toxic waste that must be dealt with. Germans will be dealing with that technical problem for centuries to come.
Those problems might be solved with advancing technology, but the moral problems with nuclear power will still be complicated. According to physicist Robert Kaita, an evangelical who has worked at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory for 40 years, this is because “as human beings created in God’s image, we have tremendous power to create and destroy, to give life and to take it.”
Understanding creation at the atomic level isn’t enough for Christians coming to terms with the ethical questions of reactors, he said. As a scientist, he doesn’t dismiss concerns about nuclear energy. He prays for wisdom
“Nuclear energy isn’t inherently evil,” Kaita said, “but we have to go beyond technical problems and consider the moral ramifications of what we are doing.”
Gerald Fink, a radiation shielding specialist who worked for Germany’s Technical Inspection Association, agrees. He said that as a Christian, he wants to take a “cosmological perspective.” He points back to the creation narrative in Genesis.
“Christianity is part of a very large project of restoration and completion. We are an important part of this, but it isn’t all about us,” he said.
By starting with that biblical perspective on human creativity and purpose, Fink believes questions around technology, clean energy, and nuclear power can be addressed more wisely and thoroughly.
“You have to have this perspective in mind when you come to the question of nuclear energy,” he said, “and then you realize it’s about much more than just splitting or combining atoms.”
Fink knows this doesn’t answer the question of a 20-year-old Christian studying physics in Berlin. But as the German government phases out the last nuclear power plants and the political debate begins a new chapter, this is a place for believers to start.
Ken Chitwood is a writer and scholar of global religion living in Germany.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.