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April 11, 2011

In 2003, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology issued a report calling for the construction of 1,000 to 1,500 new nuclear power plants around the world by 2050. The rationale? Those plants could displace 15 to 20 per cent of the expected growth in carbon emissions.

By the grace of God, the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns have so far had only local implications for the health and safety of people. With roughly 450 nuclear power plants in operation today, it seems unlikely that future nuclear accidents will always be so localized.

April 26 marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, an explosion that filled the atmosphere with more than 100 times the amount of radiation produced by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs combined. Two thousand villages had to be destroyed and at least 19 million hectares of land remain heavily contaminated. At least 25,000 workers involved in the cleanup of radioactive material have died and the incidence of thyroid cancer and birth defects in nearby cities has skyrocketed.

The Russian nuclear industry, meanwhile, has tried to hide the full health and environmental costs of the Chernobyl disaster.

The decommissioning of a nuclear plant in Connecticut in 2006 cost $400 million and left 40 concrete casks of highly radioactive spent fuel sitting at a guarded location in a forest. This represents the less dramatic future of the nuclear industry - large amounts of spent fuel under tight guard at remote locations to prevent unsavory organizations, intent on building a nuclear bomb, from getting their hands on it.

It is difficult to understand the continuance of a form of technology so fraught with potential disaster. Obviously, there are powerful financial interests that benefit from the sale and development of nuclear power.

Less obvious is the idolatry of high technology. Many are those whose religion is based on the belief that if science can uncover the secrets of nature, it is humanity's responsibility to develop the technology that uses that knowledge and to continue refining that technology until it is perfected. In the process of perfection, many may die, but that is just an unintended side effect of the pursuit of that goal.

Fukushima is nature's response to that religion. Humanity, for all its great knowledge, has miniscule power in the face of earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. A crucial complement to knowledge is wisdom and it is wisdom of which humanity is in short supply.

Alberta's bishops raised serious questions about the introduction of nuclear power into this province in a June 2009 pastoral letter.

The questions have not gone away. What is most needed is not nuclear power, but rather the "ethical reflection" to which the bishops called us.