Nuclear Sermon

By Rachel Slaybaugh, 2010-06-09 , Reading time: 13 minutes

Rachel preaching a nuclear sermon

On June 6, 2010, a young nuclear engineering Ph.D. student studying neutron transport methods named Rachel Slaybaugh gave an invited sermon at the McMaster United Methodist Church outside Pittsburgh about environmental stewardship, focusing on nuclear energy. Here, we feature the full text of this singular event, as well as a recording for your listening pleasure.

Click here for the audio of the sermon [MP3]

The text of the sermon


Good morning. My name is Rachel Slaybaugh and I’m a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, though I’m originally from Pennsylvania and did my undergraduate studies at Penn State. I’m living in Pittsburgh for the summer because I’m doing an internship at Bettis Atomic Power Lab. I’m a nuclear engineer.

Nuclear engineering is not necessarily a common career choice. I didn’t grow up knowing that I wanted to be any kind of engineer, let alone a nuclear one. But, I did grow up building a value system based on ideals like compassion, responsibility, good stewardship, and loving your neighbor. Values such as these led me to choose nuclear engineering as a career path. The focus of my message today is about why values I found in the church inspired me to choose this field.

Being a good steward of the earth is something that fits clearly into a good value system. Using resources responsibly so that there will be enough for everyone is an intuitively a positive thing. Being responsible with the Earth God has provided to us is an excellent way to honor God. I came to this conclusion early on and have therefore been concerned about taking care of the environment for most of my life.

Improving the quality of life of people around the world also fits clearly into a good value system. By improving quality of life I mean two things. The first is avoiding or reducing conflict, which is an obvious way to improve life for both those fighting and for those living in regions experiencing conflict. Peace is always a worthy goal, and so this too has been a concern of mine.

The second idea I will address is about improving life from a more traditional "moving out of poverty" standpoint. By this I mean things like: access to electricity; having clean and safe water; access to medical care; availability of education, etc. All of these things that many of us in United States have and many others are working to obtain. These three ideas are inter-related, but I tend to group the environment and conflict ideas in one challenge category and reducing poverty in another, as I’ll describe later.

When I was growing up I always said that I wanted to save the world. I wanted to find a career path that would be able to address the issues I just mentioned. And then I found one. Energy.

Environmental Responsibility

Energy impacts many many facets of our lives. The way we choose to make and use energy affects the environment and the environment affects us. This is true in developed and developing nations alike. Air pollution is a good example. Air pollution can come from many energy sources such as burning coal or natural gas to make electricity, exhaust from driving vehicles or riding in planes, emissions from burning fuel for indoor cooking and heating -- be it wood, kerosene, or something else.

Such air pollution can have large negative impacts. There used to be huge problems with acid rain in the US, Canada, and Europe that resulted from sulfur and nitrogen oxides in the air. Air quality in various parts of China is horrible causing premature death. Numerous people in India have breathing issues and shortened life spans as a result of breathing fumes from the kerosene lamps they use for light.

Air pollution is only one problem resulting from the way we currently produce energy. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an example of how our energy needs are impacting the environment. The ongoing underground fire in Centralia is a one people around here know. The recent mining disaster in West Virginia is another example. And there are many others.

Another aspect of environmental responsibility goes beyond immediate consequences to long-term impacts. I am sure that you have heard about the potential for global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases. Whether or not you think that we are causing global warming and that this could cause catastrophic changes to our planet, you must acknowledge that putting more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than has ever been there before may not be a responsible thing to do from a stewardship standpoint, particularly given the possible outcomes.

But I digress. There are many other ways that energy choices can have a long-term impact. A portion of the excess CO2 in the air is absorbed by the ocean and creates carbonic acid. Ocean acidification could destroy much ocean life, including many coral reefs. Deforestation of tropical rainforests could drastically reduce the biodiversity of life on earth. Deforestation in other areas causes desertification, converting arable land into desert.

How we choose to make and use energy affects the environment in which we live now and it will determine what our future world looks like.

Scarcity, Conflict, and Poverty

Okay, so it is pretty clear that energy use has environmental consequences and what we are choosing now has negative outcomes and may have large negative outcomes in the future. But what else? Another major concern when it comes to energy is resource scarcity.

If we use up what we have, we won’t have anything left for making energy in the same ways in the future. For example, if we simply use up all of our oil without developing reasonable alternatives for transportation fuel - we will have a hard time driving our cars. And I’ll bet that those last several million gallons of gasoline will not be $2.79 a gallon.

An important but perhaps more nuanced consequence of resource scarcity is the potential for future conflict. This conflict can come from two places: who controls resources that are scarce and actually running out of a resource. In terms of who controls the resources, you are likely familiar with the notion that our heavy reliance on oil has security implications for the United States because many of the countries rich in oil do not think of us favorably. We are reliant upon them for a scarce resource and as a result often end up either in conflict or attempting to avoid conflict in those regions.

Many countries in the world are developing rapidly and the people in them want to have a higher quality of life - as well they should. This requires energy and means global demand for traditional energy resources such as oil, coal, and natural gas is growing. Unfortunately these fuels are of finite quantity and we are not making more of them on a relevant time scale.

What do you think will happen when such fuels become truly scarce? If we are highly reliant on these materials there could be shortages, price shocks, large market instabilities. When something that affects the quality of people’s lives is jeopardized, there is high potential for conflict. I see energy as one of the most important issues of our time in large part because of the conflict that could happen if we continue to use energy the way that we do now.

I hope I have made it clear why I think that it is important to try to find sustainable ways to create and use energy. This brings me to my next point: why it is important have energy and to help increase the supply of energy around the world.

Think of the things that differentiate those living in poverty from those living more comfortable lives; things like clean water, adequate food, shelter, medical treatment, education, and so on. The United Methodist Church in particular is great at doing mission work where we help others meet such basic needs. In general, you cannot have those things without an adequate supply of energy. If we are serious about improving the lives of people around the world then we have to be serious about energy.

As an aside I’d like to point out that people who have safe and stable lives do not often go to war. If you have the things you need to live: food, water, shelter, etc. you have more stability and security. If the quality of life were better in many places experiencing conflict, it is possible that the conflict would abate.

So I have discussed that the way we choose to make energy is important and that what we are doing now is not sustainable. I also mentioned that we need to increase the availability of energy to help people move out of poverty. It may seem that those are two conflicting goals. I don’t think they are, but meeting those goals at the same time certainly presents a large challenge.


From where will we get all of this energy if we can’t keep using resources the way we are now? Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet and there isn’t likely going to be one in the near term. Every single energy source that we can use has positives and negatives. That means we need a multi-faceted approach -- a diverse energy portfolio. I think nuclear should play a key role in that portfolio, and here’s why.

Nuclear energy is an existing, large scale, reliable, non-emitting energy source. What does that mean? Existing: this is an existing technology. We have it. We’re using it right now. Large Scale: we can generate large amounts of electricity with nuclear fission. One fifth of electricity in the US and about one third in Pennsylvania comes from nuclear. Reliable: we turn on a nuclear plant and it stays on, usually for about 18 months at a time. It shuts down for 3 or 4 weeks, and then turns back on. Non-emitting: nuclear plants do not emit any air pollution. No greenhouse gases, no mercury, no materials that cause acid rain. That stuff that comes out of cooling towers is actually water vapor that has never touched anything remotely radioactive.

However, remember how I said there are positives and negatives? There are challenges associated with nuclear energy. They are solvable, but they exist. What to do with spent fuel is a recognized challenge (spent fuel is what we call nuclear fuel once we don’t want to use it for making electricity anymore. Most of you may know this as nuclear waste. I don’t consider it waste but we’ll get to that). Right now spent fuel is stored safely on site at the plants.

There are a variety of ways to handle spent fuel in the long term. It can be buried under ground as it is and left there to decay until it is no longer radioactive. It can also be recycled. When fuel is removed from a reactor it still contains a large amount of energy. Right now we only use a small fraction of the available energy because it’s easiest to do it that way.

Recycling the fuel recovers much of the remaining energy and it reduces the amount of final waste. The remaining material remains radioactive for a much shorter period of time than if it weren’t recycled. What is left will eventually be buried underground. We don’t do this right now, but some other countries do.

The other big challenge faced by nuclear energy is that it still consumes fuel, uranium. We can get much more energy out of nuclear fuel than fossil fuels, so we need much less of it (pinkie example). However, if we switched to all nuclear energy we would eventually end up with uranium a shortage. Fortunately, there are solutions to this as well. Recycling is one way to help. We also have a variety of different kinds of reactors with different characteristics that we could use to give us enough fuel for thousands of years -- which should be enough time for us to get fusion or something else working. Nuclear faces challenges, but there are solutions.


But, we need more than just nuclear. For many reasons we don’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket. We need solar. We need wind. We need hydroelectric, biomass, and geothermal. We even need oil, coal, and natural gas. But we need to make our choices wisely and responsibly. Every single source has challenges and drawbacks and we need to carefully address and balance them. I chose to study nuclear energy because I see it as a stepping-stone -- part of the picture to get us from the fossil fuel world of today to a sustainable tomorrow.

Before I conclude I would like to take a moment to say that the fastest, cheapest and simplest things that can help solve the energy problem are conservation and efficiency improvements. There are easy choices you can make in your every day lives to help reduce the amount of energy resources you use, and save you money. Making sustainable energy choices in your life is the Christian thing to do.

This discussion may seem to be a pretty far cry from Luke 7: 11-17, but I can see some relevance. Recall that Jesus brings a woman’s only son back to life. I interpret this in two ways, both with the same punch line. One way is that the Earth itself is the son in the story; the other is that the people on Earth are the son.

Fortunately for us the Earth is not dead, nor are all the people on it. In this interpretation, bringing the "son" back to life means healing the earth and improving the lives of those on it. God has given us the talent and ability to meet this challenge. Through us, the "son" in our story can be brought back to life.

Thank you very much for your attention. I would like to go further into the details of both nuclear energy and other energy sources, but I am out of time. If anyone has questions or would like to discuss these issues please come find me afterwards and I would love to talk to you. Thank you.