(Photo: Ashley Ahearn)
Dr. Helen Caldicott had stepped out of the spotlight in recent years, after a long career campaigning against nuclear energy and weapons. But a recent boost of support for nuclear power has the Nobel Peace Prize nominee back on the warpath, and as feisty as ever. She joins host Bruce Gellerman in the Living on Earth studio to talk about her life’s work.
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. For more than three decades Dr. Helen Caldicott has been on the front lines in the fight against atomic power.
Here she is back in 1982 leading the charge:
CALDICOTT (1982): Today America has 35,000 nuclear weapons. That’s enough, the Pentagon says, to overkill every Russian human being 40 times. If you think about this in medical terminology, how many times can you kill a human being?
GELLERMAN: Maybe the question is how many times can Helen Caldicott fight nuclear energy? The grande-dame of the anti-nuke movement is still at it after all these years.
Protesting nuclear weapons, atomic power and the war in Iraq.
CALDICOTT (2003): This country America is a true rogue state. They’re gonna put weapons of mass destruction in space. Cheney is a wicked man, Rumsfeld is a wicked man, and the way they’re going now they’re gonna start a massive nuclear arms race which will lead inevitably to nuclear war.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Helen Caldicott doesn’t mince words. As co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s written six books. Her latest is “Nuclear Power is Not the Answer.” Helen Caldicott joins me in the studio.
CALDICOTT: Thank you, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Your whole career is nuclear power. And yet in the last 30 years we haven’t had a new nuclear plant built in the United States.
GELLERMAN: They’ve had 30 years to kind of think about it and maybe get it right, do you think.
CALDICOTT: No, not get it right. You’ve got 103 reactors that are all really old and aging and cracking and falling apart but they want to extend their life span because they make more money by not building new ones. But the truth is Wall Street is very allergic to building nuclear power plants and so is Standard and Poor’s - they won’t touch it.
GELLERMAN: Your new book, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, is a very detailed, nuts and bolts polemic. What are the biggest negatives of nuclear power for you?
CALDICOTT: Nuclear power produces massive quantities of carbon dioxide gas. How? Not from the reactor, per se, but you’ve got to dig up the uranium. You’ve got to crush the ore. You’ve got to enrich the uranium. They use a hell of a lot of CFC gas, which is leaking prodigiously from pipes. Now, CFC is 10,000 to 20,000 times more potent as a global warming gas than carbon dioxide. That’s the front end of the fuel chain. That’s not including decommissioning the radioactive mausoleum at the end of 40 years. And transporting and storing radioactive waste for half a million years. So in fact it adds substantially to global warming. A radioactor continually emits radioactive material into the air and water every second of every day as it operates. And over time induce epidemics of cancer and leukemia and genetic and chromosomal disease for ever more.
GELLERMAN: Do you ever feel like you’re just….
CALDICOTT: Whistling in the wind?
GELLERMAN: Well that’s the nice way of putting it.
CALDICOTT: Well I feel like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. The truth is that nuclear power has really ended, although they kept the old reactors running, making more and more and more waste every day. But now there’s a resurgence of nuclear power because the industry is lying and using the issue of global warming to say that they’re the answer. So my life’s work, I hate to say this, but it feels like it’s been in vain unless we all rise up again and eliminate nuclear weapons. And unless we close down every single nuclear power plant in the world.
GELLERMAN: What was it that got you on this road?
CALDICOTT: I read a book called On the Beach, when I was 15 and I lived in Melbourne, Australia which is where it’s set.
GELLERMAN: Where the book takes place, right.
CALDICOTT: And it was about the end of the world from a nuclear war and we were all waiting for the nuclear fall out to come down and kill us and eventually it did. And at the end of the book the beautiful streets of Melbourne are still there, elegantly situated, a blind gently flapping in the breeze and that was the end of life on earth. And that seared my soul. I was 15. Then I went to medical school at 17, and I learned about what radiation does to genes and how it causes cancer and genetic abnormalities. And at the time Russia and America were blowing up bombs with impunity in the atmosphere. And I could not understand why they were doing this when strontium 90 and plutonium and the like was falling out from the sky. So, I’ve been on this path ever since, mainly because I’m intensely curious. So every article I read about nuclear weapons I learned more. I can’t understand these men. I just don’t understand these men who build these weapons and like nuclear power. And I’m sorry to say but it is that sex that does it.
GELLERMAN: A lot of the people who are your personal friends in the fight against nuclear power for so many years are now among its biggest supporters.
GELLERMAN: Well, let’s see the former head of Green Peace.
CALDICOTT: He’s not my personal friend. Patrick Moore, I invited him to my conference in Washington DC called nuclear power and global warming as a sort of token of an environmentalist turned tail. He is employed by the nuclear industry. And also Green Peace disowns him and says he wasn’t one of the founders.
GELLERMAN: Do you think you made a difference? That these many years have changed things?
CALDICOTT: Well, I think we led a revolution in America in the ‘80s. I formulated Physicians for Social Responsibility. We recruited 23,000 physicians in America and around the world many more. And we started doing what we called the bombing run. We dropped the bomb on Boston. The first symposium was held at Harvard and was written up on the front of the Boston Globe. And the bishops started reading about this and they said, “Oh, I don’t think Jesus would be in favor of nuclear war.” So, they formulated the Bishop’s Parcel Letter. The Methodists did the same thing. And people started saying, “nuclear is bad for our health.” And in 5 years literally, the whole country moved from really metaphorically supporting nuclear war the concept to 80 percent being violently opposed. And that was a peaceful, sagacious Ghandian revolution.
GELLERMAN: What happened to us? What happened to that revolution?
CALDICOTT: Well the Cold War ended. We were successful. We ended the Cold War. But guess what, George the First was good. He eliminated quite a lot of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and in Europe to help Gorbachev with his difficult military and to help him bring all the missiles and bombs back to Russia per se from the Ukraine and the like. Then we got Clinton. Everyone likes Clinton. They think he’s very smart and he is. But his legacy, and I tell you for this I really resent him, is he left the weapons in place in Russia and America. He didn’t have the courage, tenacity, wisdom, and vision to go to Yeltsin and say, “Ok, Boris, sign here. In five years, we will eliminate nuclear weapons between Russia and America.” Of the 30,000 hydrogen bombs in the world today Russia and America own 97%. And here’s George Bush running around the world with a microscope looking and saying, “Ooh, I think Iran’s got one, ooh what about…?” You know, where the major culprits, the real nuclear rogue states in the world are Russia and America, holding the world at nuclear hostage. And that’s the backdrop upon which the world stage is being played, Iran, Iraq. Because any anxiety could trigger an inadvertent launch and America still has a policy to fight and win a preemptive war against Russia and blow it all up and then they’ll blow you up.
GELLERMAN: When are you going to re-retire?
CALDICOTT: (laughs) Well, Bruce, I’m 68.
GELLERMAN: I wasn’t going to ask.
CALDICOTT: Well, I am. I don’t care. I mean I’m 68, I’m 68. I’ve got a bit of a heart thing. And when the diagnosis was made this year I thought, gee I think I’d better just sit on my veranda and crochet. I’ve got a 2.5 acre garden that I adore and be a grandma. And then I thought well I may as well get in my cardboard coffin if I’m going to do that. What point is there? Cardboard so the worms can get to me while I’m still nice and juicy.
GELLERMAN: You don’t even crochet.
CALDICOTT: I do so. I made myself a suit. A patient came in once with a beautiful crocheted suit and I said, “That’s gorgeous”. She said, “I’ll give you the pattern”. So I sat in my bed and I crocheted a suit. But I knit too and I used to make all my clothes.
GELLERMAN: I was going to say, does this ever really get to you? I mean this is doom and destruction and death and despair and…
CALDICOTT: Bruce, the trouble with me is that I’m a bit child like. I can’t practice psychic numbing. I can’t block out unpleasant reality. And unfortunately I can see things that are going to happen. I can’t help it. And in order to maintain my sanity I have to do this work. If I stop I get so depressed I have to take an anti depressant.
CALDICOTT: No that’s serous. I do. I have a sense, I can sleep with a clear conscience at night. I can look at my grandchildren in the morning because they live with me, and know that I’m doing my work to help save their lives. I’m a proper grandmother and mother. And I know I can die with a clear conscience. I like being a hedonist. I like my red wine, and you know. But I can’t not do the work. Because otherwise, what’s the point in living? I’m here to serve.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Caldicott, it has been a real pleasure.
CALDICOTT: Thank you very much, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Helen Caldicott’s latest book is called “Nuclear Power is Not the Answer.”
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.
Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.