Some Modern Responsa on Pollution by Radiation*

Lord Immanuel Jakobovits

An international body, concerned to reduce the hazards of radiation, including pollution caused by fuel-generated electricity, wanted to know the Jewish view on reducing this peril to "zero risk." My reply to this broad question was necessarily less specific than I usually like to be:

The problems you raise are complex indeed, and I am not sure I can quantify the values to be weighed with sufficient precision to provide you with straightforward answers. All I can attempt is to set out some comparative guidelines. It seems to me that there are at least three quite distinct rubrics to be considered in this context:

1.  The deliberate killing of innocent people (infanticide, euthanasia and the execution of civilian hostages).

2.  The known and likely risk to human life and health (e.g. motor cars and smoking).

3.  The unknown and unquantifiable risk to human life and health (radiation and other environmental pollution).

Your letter is of course only concerned with the last category. But for the sake of perspective, I have to set it into the context of the other two as well. The first rubric, as I explained in my statement, can never be sanctioned under any circumstances. The second risk, though clearly graver than the third, has evidently been accepted as a price we are prepared to pay for technological progress and individual freedom.

The possible hazards of ecological pollution which concern you, if they are to be completely eliminated, would compel a much more radical reversal of our industrial civilization, including apparently dispensing with all electricity unless generated by water or solar energy, as implied in your letter.

To achieve a "zero risk" is therefore simply impracticable, however morally desirable this might be. And even if we aimed at this, other far more hazardous major industries would first have to be dismantled. On the other hand, I quite appreciate that the lesser and more unknown risks of radiation would have to be set against the potentially more universal threat possibly posed to future generations by radiological pollution or atomic power accidents. In principle, I would still maintain that a proven danger to, say, thousands of individuals, would take precedence over a remote and unknown hazard to millions, since numbers in themselves are irrelevant, as the life of a single individual is as infinitely precious as any multiplication of it. Nevertheless, if the environmental factors are gradually shown to pose a real and definite threat to human existence without the prospect of adequate protection, I have no doubt that we would not be morally justified in allowing such hazards to be developed or maintained.

These broad considerations are limited to the civilian sphere. Additional factors would further complicate the judgment in the military field, especially inasmuch as it involves an element of self-defense.


*  See Introduction by Lord Jacobovitz, Jewish Medical Ethics vol. I, p. 77, The Schlesinger Institute, Jerusalem 2004.