Educating the flock: Chicago Episcopal Diocese supports nuclear power
Most people probably don’t think about nuclear power in terms of religion, but the association may not be so far-fetched, as suggested by a resolution adopted by the 185th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. “Supporting a Clean Energy Future” was passed on November 19, 2022, with 78 percent of participants voting affirmatively.
The resolution directs the diocese to ask the national Episcopal Church to endorse “the use of carbon-free nuclear energy for replacing the use of fossil fuel, which, when achieved, will reduce pollution of the environment, reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the reliability and resilience of the power grid year-round and during extreme weather events.” Those who could participate in the vote are canonically resident clergy—that is, priests and deacons—and lay delegates elected from each congregation.
Alan Medsker, the primary author and one of four sponsors of the pro–nuclear power resolution, was present for the vote. A telecommunications engineer for Atos North America and a member of the American Nuclear Society, he is also a longtime advocate of nuclear power in Illinois, with many years of experience lobbying on behalf of nuclear power plants and educating people about nuclear power. He also volunteers his time for such nonprofit organizations as Generation Atomic and the Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal. He describes the association between his Christian faith and his nuclear energy advocacy as his passion.
Medsker told Nuclear News, “As a person of faith, I want to see society take care of all people, and I’d like to do what we can to preserve and protect the planet we all inhabit. I’ve learned much about nuclear energy since becoming interested in it around 10 years ago, and I believe we could help many people, and protect our planet better, if we made more use of it.”
Some of Medsker’s accomplishments in advocating for nuclear energy in Illinois were described in an article by ANS staffer Amelia Tiemann published in 2022 on The Fourth Generation (4thgeneration.energy), a news and blog website that covers issues related to climate change and energy technology. The article “For the Love of Nuclear (#1): Alan Medsker and the Fight to Save the Illinois Reactors” noted that he successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass an energy bill in 2021 that extended the lives of two nuclear power plants—Exelon’s Byron and Dresden—that had been slated for early closure. He is quoted as saying, “I go to Springfield [the state capital of Illinois] and I walk around and talk to any legislator that’ll have me. Sometimes it was clear that I was the first person to ever talk to them positively about nuclear energy.” Medsker said in the article that as he learned more about nuclear energy over the years, he came to realize “how phenomenally good nuclear reactors are, in the exact incarnation they’re in. What you can do to unleash the power of fission in a controlled way is one of the most magical gifts of science we’ve been given.”
The Episcopal progressive tradition of making religion relevant to current social justice issues has always been foremost in Medsker’s mind. As he told Fourth Generation, “My passion is about making sure that in dealing with climate change, we don’t short-change the poorest people. There’s an example Jesus gives, in which he says ‘the way you treat the people that are the worst off in your society, think of that as though you’re treating me that way.’ . . . We’re going to have to be prepared for the things that climate change gives us. The focus should be on the people who are least prepared, like people in the developing world that don’t have energy. What’s most important for people’s livelihoods is reliable electricity. All the societal things that we value require that.”
Of his motivations for crafting the pro–nuclear power resolution, Medsker said, “I originally had the idea for this resolution in the summer of 2021, and after doing some research into how resolutions worked at the diocesan level, I began working on putting one together. Andrew Smith [the director of communications at ANS] offered to help. We had already been corresponding on other nuclear advocacy topics, and I immediately accepted.”
He continued, “I felt like my Episcopal denomination prided itself on being pro-science, and much work had been done to express our collective concern about climate change, poverty, and pollution. However, we had somehow never gotten around to seriously considering endorsing nuclear energy, a key technology—and a gift from God, as is all we have—for helping address these concerns. It seemed to me that the church, which is viewed as a moral authority by many on so many issues, was missing a big opportunity to help build public acceptance of nuclear. I submitted this resolution to our diocese to change that—to help us lift our collective voice in support of nuclear energy.”
Medsker prepared the early drafts of the resolution with input from Smith. In addition, Joe Zurawski—who, like Medsker, is a lay Episcopalian—provided some content that was incorporated into the explanation that accompanied the resolution. The sponsors of the resolution were Medsker, Zurawski, the Reverend Jenny Hulen, and the Reverend Larry Handwerk. Hulen is the rector of Medsker’s home parish, St. Simon’s Episcopal Church in Arlington Heights, a northwestern suburb of Chicago. It was she who made the motion to adopt the resolution during the November 2022 convention. Handwerk is an assisting priest, now retired from his formal duties, at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Glencoe, a suburb on Chicagoland’s North Shore. Some input was also received from Laura Hermann, an ANS member and the founder of Potentiary, a company that provides executive-level support services.
The resolution was first presented at the 2021 Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, but it received only 44 percent of the vote and failed to pass. Medsker and his group of nuclear supporters then spent the subsequent year speaking with other members of the diocese, trying to educate them about the benefits of nuclear energy. Medsker said, “I also spammed the offices of all of the 120-odd parishes in the diocese with the resolution and explanation attached, along with an offer for those who had questions or concerns to join one of a couple of Zoom calls prior to the convention.” He added, “The people I’ve spoken to in the Episcopal church are almost always supportive of nuclear energy once I provide them with a little information. Most of the people in our denomination probably have no particular opinion on nuclear energy, and as we’ve seen, no opinion in this case is often equivalent to a ‘no’ vote when it comes to nuclear projects of any sort.
“This [nuclear energy] is important to the church for the same reason that resolutions supporting other technologies, such as solar energy, are important—they give us a ‘hook’ to think about, and a common expression that conveys our concerns, our hopes, our wishes for all people. Whether it’s via a parish newsletter or a press release, when someone hears about people of faith supporting a position, it could be the thing that ‘clicks’ for them, and moves them to learn and discover more about it.”
The extra talking and cajoling—along with some extra tweaking of the resolution wording—led to the success achieved when the resolution was presented for a second vote at the 2022 convention, which was presided over by the Right Reverend Paula E. Clark, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. The success prompted Medsker to email Smith, “IT PASSED!” The resolution will be sent to the national church convention in 2024, which Medsker described as “history in the making, for sure.”
National convention and attitudes
The 81st General Convention of the Episcopal Church is the national church convention, held every three years. The next gathering will be held in July 2024 in Louisville, Ky. There, the voting delegates will be clergy and lay people elected by each diocese.
A vote in favor of the resolution by the U.S. Episcopal Church would be historic because, as Medsker has observed, American church attitudes toward nuclear energy have generally not been supportive. He explained, “An Internet or LexisNexis search on the intersection of mainline religious denominations—Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, et cetera—and nuclear will yield many examples of situations where the church, or its members or congregations, have protested against nuclear. This has traditionally been against nuclear weapons but has generally broadened to include nuclear energy as well, as much by default as by design.”
He continued, “There is broad membership overlap between organizations like the Sierra Club, which is officially anti–nuclear energy, and the more liberal religious denominations, and it rubs off. So, religious folk that are vocal about nuclear energy are almost exclusively speaking out against it, and the rest don’t challenge them.” Despite this generally negative attitude, Medsker said, “I’ve come to the hopeful conclusion that this is as much due to nobody actually challenging the churches on the matter, as it is to anything else. I hope to be the spark that begins changing that. I would also note that there continues to be a certain risk to advocating for nuclear energy in progressive/liberal religious denominations. But this is a conversation we must have, and I hope more people join.”
It’s worth noting that the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2018 adopted a resolution on climate change titled “Urge Support for Carbon Accounting Policies for Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” which called on “Episcopalians to support and advocate for justly implemented policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as a carbon tax.” However, the document made no mention of nuclear energy.
As Medsker and other pro-nuclear church members prepare for the 2024 national convention, they can savor the victory that they have achieved with the Chicago diocese delegates’ vote last November. Other churches considering similar actions may want to examine the complete wording used in the passed resolution, which reads as follows:
RESOLVED, that the 185th Convention of the Diocese of Chicago submit the following resolution to the 81st General Convention of the Episcopal Church:
RESOLVED, the House of [Deputies or Bishops, both of which need to pass the resolution for it to be adopted by the General Convention] concurring, that the 81st General Convention of the Episcopal Church endorse the use of carbon-free nuclear energy for replacing the use of fossil fuel, which, when achieved, will reduce pollution of the environment, reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the reliability and resilience of the power grid year-round and during extreme weather events.
FURTHER RESOLVED, that by endorsing the use of carbon-free nuclear energy, the General Convention recognize that it is a valuable tool to replace the use of fossil fuels, reduce pollution in the environment and support a more just, equitable, and sustainable world for historically disadvantaged communities across the United States and the world, especially in developing countries.
FURTHER RESOLVED, that the endorsement of carbon-free nuclear energy extends to keeping existing nuclear power plants online to complement other clean energy sources, so to avoid increased fossil fuel use that would occur from premature closures of nuclear power plants.
The explanation provided with the resolution offers more insight into the sponsors’ views on nuclear energy and the church’s responsibilities in society:
While it may not seem to be the church’s place to delve deeply into energy policy discussions, when there are opportunities to alter the discussion and effect positive change, it is appropriate for the church to “weigh in.” This is already done in many policy areas—affordable housing; capital punishment; health care, as examples—and energy policy, which affects so many aspects of our society, is certainly a good candidate for well-reasoned advocacy. This would simply add to the advocacy efforts already being made in various corners of our denomination to encourage use of clean energy solutions like solar panels. . . .
A pro–nuclear energy statement from the church will provide openings for discussing this vital option for providing our sisters and brothers across the globe with clean, reliable, affordable energy without the global warming and air pollution side effects. While other clean energy sources such as solar and wind can also help, there is no shortage of advocates for those technologies. In addition, they are limited by their diffuse nature, and their intermittency, and by themselves, will not be able to power a modern society.
Unlike organizations that focus strictly on environmental issues or political advocacy, a church may be seen by much of the public as having more moral authority, enhancing the weight given to its expressed arguments. That’s certainly how Medsker views the situation with nuclear power. “I think it’s important for the church to publicly express our support for nuclear, because it can make such a positive impact and ultimately can be a wonderful tool to help people and the planet,” he said. “Conversations with policymakers and the public are always easier when the position you are advocating is supported by others, particularly those with some moral authority.”
Medsker is proud of his pro–nuclear power resolution’s passage by the Chicago diocese and is looking forward to the historic vote on the resolution at the 2024 convention. He said, “I know of no other Episcopal diocese or mainline denomination body of this size that has even considered such a move. It just doesn’t get discussed. I believe this is a historical precedent, and I hope the national resolution is adopted, and that other denominations take notice. Of course, I would be delighted to learn of other similar efforts, but I have not heard of any—and I like to think I probably would have, traveling in the pro-nuclear and Christian circles that I do.”
There is always hope. It springs eternal, as is commonly said. Or as is stated in the Bible, in Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”