Sean Gonsalves, Cape Cod Times, 3 April 2012
It’s famously difficult to get face time with a sitting president.
But, on the strength of her reputation as one of the world’s leading anti-nuclear activists, Dr. Helen Caldicott got an hour with President Ronald Reagan — an encounter, she believes, that may have influenced him to work with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the former USSR.
Now, the Australian-born medical doctor, author of the popular books “Nuclear Madness” and “Missile Envy,” founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility and current president of The Helen Caldicott Foundation/NuclearFreePlanet.org, is hoping for just 30 minutes with President Barack Obama so she can talk to him about his “all of the above” energy policy.
“I need just a half-hour with him,” the former Nobel Peace Prize nominee told me Monday as she prepared to visit the Cape, where she’s scheduled to give an anti-nuke talk at Cape Cod Community College on Wednesday night.
Obama, she said, “is intelligent and he’s got two beautiful daughters. I’d like to talk to him about the medical effects of nuclear power, especially on children. Children are 20 times more radiosensitive than adults. And, we don’t know why, but little girls are twice as sensitive as boys.”
With 40 years of activism under her stethoscope, Caldicott doesn’t bite her tongue. She said relicensing the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth would be “absolutely criminal.” She described Entergy Nuclear, the owner of the 40-year-old plant, as a company that doesn’t care about residents who live near its plants. “They just care for profits,” she said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is considering Pilgrim’s request for a 20-year extension of its license, employs some “fine people,” Caldicott said. But, she added, the NRC is also full of “political appointees who will do anything the industry wants them to do. They are there to care for the well-being of the industry, not the people.”
Last week, the NRC held an open house at Plymouth Town Hall on Pilgrim’s relicensing, declaring, “We wouldn’t allow this plant to continue to operate if we did not think they were operating safely.”
About 50 concerned residents showed up, most of whom were underwhelmed by NRC’s reassurances. The criticisms of local Pilgrim watchdogs center on the plant’s design and the GE Mark I model reactor, the same type that melted down at Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami.
The Mark I’s containment area is too small, and vents meant to avoid the buildup of potentially explosive gases should be automatically filtered, say opponents of the relicensing effort.
Caldicott said that should Pilgrim ever melt down, “no one would get off Cape Cod.” And other concerns about nuclear power also should be taken in consideration, she said.
Pointing to the infamous Chernobyl disaster, she said the likelihood of similar human errors increases as more plants are built, to say nothing of the possible contamination of our food chain and the increased risk of cancer associated with nuclear power.
“They’re cancer factories that can mutate genes in sperm and eggs. So what we’re talking about are random compulsory genetic engineering,” she said.
Caldicott also took aim at the industry assertion that nuclear plants will help reduce global warming. “They don’t mitigate against global warming because the infrastructure produces massive quantities of CO² and CFC gas,” she said.
Of course, Caldicott has her critics — both inside and outside the industry — who have lately taken to questioning the math and science behind her conclusions. Journalist George Monbiot has slammed much of Caldicott’s work as being based on “falsehoods and exaggerations” — to which Caldicott replied: “George Monbiot knows nothing of radiobiology. He’s medically incorrect.”
Others argue that without nuclear power, we’d be even more reliant on fossil fuels. And again, Caldicott called that nonsense, noting that her organization is finishing up a “quite technical” study called “carbon-free nuclear freeze” she described as a road map to “nuke-free” by 2030, using all the renewable energy technologies currently available.
Unfortunately, these kind of scientific debates tend to quickly melt down into ideology and duels over source material, leaving nonspecialists like me in the position described by mathematical philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Clearly, if you are going to believe anything outside your own experience, you should have some reason for believing it. Usually, the reason is authority. … Most of us must inevitably depend upon (authority) for most of our knowledge.”
And that’s why I’ve embarked on a program of math-ercize, starting all over again with algebra, hoping to eventually reach the summit of Mount Calculus.
I’m still in the foothills. But I want to position myself to read and interpret the language of science firsthand and rely less on authority. At the very least, I should be able to help my son with his math homework when he gets in high school — if we manage not to nuke ourselves first.