AOH :: NUA-NUKE.TXT|
Does being "New Age" mean you must be against all things nuclear?
DOES "BEING" NEW AGE MEAN YOU MUST BE AGAINST
ALL THINGS NUCLEAR?
Submitted for comment by Abe Van Luik,
Compuserve # 72163,3070
I upload this file with some reservations because of its rather
personal content. But I upload it because I recently finished taking
part in a series of public meetings on radioactive waste disposal
issues. In those meetings I was shocked when I began to realize
that what motivated these people who were so hostile to me and to
my work, and who never tired of declaring that our waste disposal
activities are immoral at their very root, was in essence their vision
of what life is all about: their spirituality.
I interpreted them to be claiming a superior spirituality as a basis for
their stance, and I was shocked because I had for years included myself in
the group that activiely explored and shared that same, Earth-centered
spiritual vision. One critic, in private conversation afterward, boldly
declared that one can't both be New Age and pro-nuclear at the same time.
That cut me to the quick. Has the New Age published a Creed? Is it
exacting a loyalty oath? Hence this retort, which makes a statement, but
also invites discussion.
Please note that this piece was originally written for my co-workers
in nuclear waste disposal, hence the "we" in the following text is
actually "us," unless of course you agree with "us" and then you are
part of "we." If there is any confusion, let content and context be
EARTH CUSTODIANSHIP AND THE DISPOSAL OF
A repeating theme is echoed by critics of those of us engaged in
investigating the merits of disposing of nuclear waste in deep
geological settings (the preferred approach of every nuclear nation I
know of). We are injuring and defiling the Earth and not being
good custodians. We continue to attempt to conquer the Earth
rather than revere it as our source and our destiny. We are void of
the Spirituality that comes with a rootedness to the Earth.
This has been especially well expressed in song, dance and the
spoken word at a series of recent meetings on this issue. In
addition, in every meeting where Native Americans speak, these
heartfelt ideas are stirringly expressed, over and over, evidencing a
deep-seated cultural difference.
There is a lot of strong emotion behind these ideas, and the anger
expressed towards those who apparently are blind to this vision is
actually felt by those expressing it: it is not play-acting, it is very
real. We are perceived to thoughtlessly and with foul intent run
rough-shod over their strongest inner convictions and feelings. In
our critics' eyes we persist in continuing to defile our common
Earth Mother, and think we are intellectually superior not only to
our critics, but superior to the forces of Nature as well. This kind
of hubris is written all over our faces and is conveyed in every
technical word we speak, and the more we speak technical "stuff"
the more it makes the listeners feel hopeless and angry.
This anger is not something we want to aggravate. It is dangerous.
We also don't want to discount these people just because in the US
they (the devotees of the New Age and Native Americans) are in
the minority. When it comes to their perception of potential risk
from our potential waste disposal activities, exaggerated as that risk
may be, they are probably representative of a sizable fraction of the
total population. It is only in their gut feelings and spiritual
convictions about why our activity is immoral that they drop into a
Their descriptions of an Earth- spirituality and the cosmological
connectedness that it recognizes, fosters and celebrates, is one that
matches in many ways my own experience and perception of reality.
So, often in these public meetings I was in an amazing (for me)
state of agreement with the sentiments being expressed on the
abstract level. It is in the application of those sentiments, however,
that I finally part company with these critics.
What does any of this have to do with nuclear waste disposal?
There are two levels at which I'd like to offer a criticism of the
statements typically made by those claiming to be motivated by an
Earth-centered spirituality: (a) the public risk level, and (b) the
a). Many made a rather typical comment that there was no
environmental crisis hence waste should stay where it is in many
locations on the Earth's surface and not be disposed of in a central
location deep in the Earth. These comments echo a sentiment
clearly stated in a recent book, which I will cite and reply to:
"instead of burying this waste to deny it, thus making life intolerable
for generations to come, we ought to keep it visible above ground"
. . . in "guardian sites" [from a book by Matthew Fox: "Creation
Spirituality," HarperCollins Publishers, New York].
I am not suggesting at all that our critics are familiar with the book
from which I took this quote. I suspect some are, and are feeding
these concepts and sentiments to others, hence the vehemence -in
part- of the feelings this geologic disposal option aroused. Others
have derived this sentiment independently. The Native American
critics, for example, have no need of this type of priming by an
advocate of "creation-centered" spirituality, which is
to me conceptually the same as Native American Earth-Mother
centered spirituality except that it allows adaptation to a larger
group of religious symbols and systems.
My response to this notion is that I believe that until creation/Earth
spirituality takes over the world, human political institutions will
continue to be as unstable and unpredictable as they currently are,
and as they have been in all of history. Providing the potential for
relatively easy access to this dangerous material above ground, even
with active defensive systems in place, poses an undue societal risk.
The possession of this material (reactor spent fuel has to be
reprocessed, which is not easy to do, to extract fissile uranium and
plutonium) does not represent a capability to create nuclear
weapons, but it does give a potential terrorist group or individual
the opportunity to seriously poison land and water unless demands
Geology, on the other hand, is much more stable than human
institutions or societies. And deep, carefully engineered
emplacement in a competently selected site promises an extremely
low level of risk to future generations. All over the world, the
concensus is that deep geological disposal into stable formations is
the way to handle this type of waste. And in many nations' written
statements on why this is the preferred option they explicitly cite
the instability of human institutions over very long time periods.
Many countries have shallow burial grounds for short-lived,
relatively innocuous radioactive waste. Several countries already
have working repositories for medium-lived wastes, Sweden and
Finland are two examples.
Highly radioactive, long-lived waste repositories are under
development in well over a dozen countries. In discussions that
have taken place as part of cooperative work between these nations'
programs, it has become apparent that all are acutely aware of the
need to remove these materials from the surface of the earth
precisely because there is no way to guarantee the current
institutional controls over the long time periods needed (even the
200 to 500 years needed for the decay of low level wastes go well
beyond the mean lifetime of most modern nation-states).
As has been suggested in Matthew Fox's book, and repeated by
some of our critics in our public meetings, these sites, particularly if
they also contain the radioactive wastes of weapons programs,
could be marked with museums to human stupidity and cruelty,
exhibiting before/after pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and
outlining the stupendous costs of assuring total mutual- and
self-destructive capability. I have no problem with that: I hope
(naively, I'm sure but that is my privilege) no one ever builds
nuclear weapons again, forever. But this gets us to the spiritual
level of my criticism.
(b). "military and civilian power plants" [another
quote from Fox's book, reflecting a -perhaps
deliberate- confusion that was rampant
throughout the public meeting criticisms]
I was shocked and sorry to see the repeated and indiscriminate
mixed-mentioning of military plants, which usually exist only to
produce plutonium, not power, and civilian plants, which usually
exist only to produce power and are not particularly useful for
making weapons' grade plutonium. I say usually because
there have been and are a few exceptions, especially in the former
U.S.S.R. Even in the U.S. there was until recently ONE dual-
purpose reactor, N-Reactor at Hanford, Washington. But this
reactor has been permanently shut down and was NOT EVER run
by a civilian electric utility.
I take it that the meaning of these types of seemingly ill-informed
comments is to underscore that to use nuclear fuel to produce
power is incompatible with regarding "the planet as a sacred trust."
My question is, why do so many coming from this Earth-centered
spiritual tradion feel that way?
Before going into the spirituality side of the argument I would like
to make some side-observations about generating electricity from
burning fossil fuels, which does not seem to create the type of fear
and antagonism that using nuclear fission does. Burning coal
releases natural radioactivity, radon, in substantial quantities, and is
linked with air pollution, acid rain, mining and ash wastes and
miners' deaths (environmental impact problems from coal mines is
where I started my career in the applied environmental sciences).
Burning coal is associated with serious air pollution problems, and
then there is the sometimes heavy-metal laden fly ash to dispose of.
It isn't an environmentally clean energy source, and it is extracted
through a process (mining) that defiles Mother Earth as surely as
burying nuclear waste and at a much larger magnitude.
But rather than get into an environmental "which is worse" debate,
(there's no such thing as an environemtal-free-lunch when it comes
to making electricity) let's get back to why I disagree with the
opposition to all things nuclear and still, myself, subscribe to the
same Earth-centered spiritual point of view from which that
opposition allegedly derives both its substance and vehemence.
Look at the gifts of Mother Nature that took their turns in creating
the home in which Mother Earth could finally spawn life, and us:
they are a series of nuclear processes. The Big Bang's "fireball" of
subatomic particles is (still) undergoing fusion to make the lighter
elements, the subsequent fusion of these lighter elements make the
basic ingredients of the cosmos as we know it. The fusions are now
localized in stars, and make the heavier elements that make worlds
such as ours possible. All these creative processes are nuclear
Our Earth, from which we have our being, after over 4 billion years,
still has a hot core. Why? Because it has a significant radioactive
component, lots of radionuclides down there undergoing fission and
making heat, keeping the core molten. This, in turn, fuels the
ultimate long-term recycling machine: it allows the plates that make
up the Earth's crust to be continually subducted and remolten, and
sends recycled crust back up into the deep-ocean spreading zones
to eventually become new land.
And finally, it is the radiative energy output of a nuclear device, the
Sun, that is absorbed by the Earth's crust and allows life to come
forth and exist as we know it. Thus, all of Mother Nature's most
fundamental creative processes are in turn energized and fueled by
And since we are of the Earth, we are ourselves radioactive, largely
because of our potassium content. By some standards the dose one
receives from sleeping with another human being is unacceptable,
and by other standards human bodies are low-level radioactive
But let's look at another amazing aspect of this nuclear material that
is diffused throughout the Earth's surface. When hydrothermal
events send hot water streaming upward they preferentially dissolve
certain metals out of the surrounding rock, and carry them upward.
As the hot solutions cool, some of the dissolved metals plate out
and form deposits.
Similarly, near-surface groundwaters dissolve minute quantities of
metals from the rocks they move through, and as these waters
descend in the Earth they lose their oxygen content, the metals
change oxidation states and become insoluble, and large deposits
can form. Among these metals are the radioactive ones. Mother
Nature delivers them to us, as it were.
Nature also teaches us what can be done with these materials. At
Oklo, in Gabon, these types of deposits were so rich in fissile
uranium, because the new Earth was rich in fissile uranium then,
that they went critical as if they had been placed in the core of a
reactor. These natural nuclear reactors were quenched over a
billion years ago, but they are still around today to be mined and to
be studied. They spawned natural plutonium, the one material
thought to be totally un-natural by many, most all of which has now
decayed away. A whale of a good argument for the stability of the
deep geology, is it not? And a good argument for that geology's
ability to contain the types of radioactive elements that many
industrialized nations are trying to dispose of in similar fashion.
The point of all of this is: how is it disrespectful and unspiritual to
imitate the design of the cosmos and utilize these materials and
processes? Of course it is disrespectful to use these powers to
destroy, but the same can be said for fire or almost anything else
that has power. But to use these natural forces to warm us, or to
move us (the excellent French electric railroads are largely nuclear
powered), or to power our computers and light bulbs without
spewing tons of noxious gases into the atmosphere and without all
that heavy-metal laden fly ash to dispose of? To me, it is not at all
a contradiction that I feel at peace with the cosmos and yet favor
the responsible exploitation of this natural resource and the
responsible disposal of its waste streams.
There is nothing intrinsically disrespectful, immoral, or unspiritual
in these materials or processes. On the contrary, the universe, and
life, were created from these processes, and depend on them daily
for their continued existence. Our using them binds us closer to the
source and designer of the cosmos and of life.
These materials and processes are primary cosmic gifts of the first
magnitude. It takes discipline and knowledge for us to use them
correctly and safely, true. There is significant danger in doing
things sloppily. And Chernobyl was an exercise in arrogance:
Soviet engineers bragged, in publications I have read describing
these reactors, that they were so safe that they only required one
cooling system. They pointed out that Western engineers were
such boneheads they put in anywhere from two to four redundant
systems to make up for potential defects in their inferior designs. In
the Soviet nuclear engineers' defense, I must say it was the
deliberate shutdown of that one cooling system that caused the
problem. That shutdown evidenced more arrogance: they heard the
alarms but thought they knew better what the state of the system
was than the idiot lights and buzzers, and so ignored them.
But my point here is that learning chemistry and physics, and
practicing an exacting self-discipline in the manufacture of materials
and systems, are hardly crimes against nature, and they are hardly
incompatible with spirituality.
Maybe you can see from the above why I am chagrined at the
denunciations at our recent public meetings. The speakers there
assumed that everyone with Earth- (or creation-) centered spiritual
insight would feel that nuclear power and nuclear waste disposal
are inherently immoral. It just isn't so.
The Existential Abyss and An Earth-Centered Cosmology
Our Native American critics, and those who have adopted or
adapted their Earth-centered spirtuality, live or seek to live in a
state wherein one is spiritually and intuitively one with the Earth, or
the "All" depending on their particular cosmology.
Perhaps the curse of modernity is that we have led ourselves, falsely
I believe, to think it possible to rationally comprehend the nature of
reality in the absolute sense. In doing so we bump up against the
functional limits of our meager brains. We sink into a state of
non-thinking stupor over the fact that the universe does not make
sense, it can not possibly exist because no one can really fathom
either the time or the space context in which it exists.
And if the universe can't exist, neither can we. It is at that point
that we moderns seem to place a band-aid over the abyss of
unknowing and take comfort in the fact that we do know the
universe exists, and that we are, because we can feel ourselves
engaged in the act of attempting to think. And if even that is
uncomfortable we hide from the gaping abyss of reality by making
ourselves so busy that we haven't time to think these types of
unpractical thoughts. We live in a state of existence-denial and are
neither connected with the All nor rooted in Mother Earth. We live
in the here and now only.
We lack a type of spirituality that the Native American peoples, and
others who follow their spiritual concepts, claim for themselves.
Whether that claimed spirituality is "real" or just another way of
applying a band-aid over the existential abyss is not for me to
say. In my opinion they are onto something, but as with any human
institutionalization of basic truth, they are as apt to carry their
convictions into the realm of arrogance as we are.
Just what is this existential abyss? For many modern people,
cosmology begins with the big bang, and that's OK. But it is prior
to that somewhat discrete event that one must look for the
definition of existence.
What was the origin of the parent materials that collapsed into this
ultra-dense body that then explosively destabilized? And what was
its frame of reference? What neighbors did it have? What cradle
holds the time-space continuum in which our universe has its being?
No one knows. No one can know? I believe that it is unknowable,
you may not.
Existence itself is unfathomable. Reality is by definition
unknowable. It [ultimate truth] is forever a mystery precisely
because it spawned us, we are a subset of it and can thus never
comprehend the whole except in the numinous sense of
experiencing our radical (at the root) unity with it. Many of our
critics claim this unity to be their state of being, and that from this
state of being truth is self-evident.
To me this is just more human hubris. We don't experience this
knowing through unity with the all continuously, but we are
designed to hunger for it, and it rewards us with joy and awe when
we make our partial discoveries on the path of contemplation and
doing good. Ever searching but never coming to a full knowlege of
the truth, that is the real human condition except during those
relatively rare times when one is spiritually and intuitively one with
But even though I feel "their" way is not, a priori, superior to "our"
(nominal "Western") way, neither is our way, a priori, superior to
their way. In fact, I find there is evidence for this same type of
nature-centered spirituality in and at the root of every mature
No human being is superior to any other human being solely
because of a claimed allegiance to any tradition, no matter how
spiritually or intellectually superior it may be in concept. People are
people, and are capable of, if not indeed destined to, make a
mockery of every noble intent, and make a mess of every
opportunity for doing a lofty deed. This is the grist for the mills of
philosophers and show business, all the way from the Greek
civilization right into our own times. This is also why the people
(even those of us who feel we are highly idealistic) who run the
world's nuclear waste programs need, despite their sometime
protestations, a serious degree of independent oversight.
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