In-your-face time with Dr. Caldicott

Helen CaldicottSean 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/, 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.

3 thoughts on “In-your-face time with Dr. Caldicott”

  1. Margo Jackson

    I totally get what you say. We’re like little boys in the playground all trying to have the biggest stick so that nobody will attack us. Now the sticks have got so big and dangerous that nobody dares use them. But they’ve got so big and horrible that even unused they’re dangerous. But don’t we drop radioactive bombs on people and cause death and cancer and environmental disaster?
    The Peace people’s point, surely, is that SOMEBODY has got to keep saying: ‘Let’s not do this any more. Let’s find a better way to resolve our differences and our fears of each other.’ For all of my life, as far as I can see, each war has just paved the way for the next. None of them has solved anything fundamental or done any good. War is just plain stupid. Surely it’s better to keep shouting about it, even if we shout in vain, than to sit back and silently accept that it’s part of ‘human nature’ and there’s nothing we can do about it?

  2. When I look at the peace movement, I can only conclude that they don’t live on the same planet as the rest of us. For example, they are shockingly ignorant about the way nations relate to each other in a world of limited contested resources. In this regard, in the past, nations have always resorted to violence in order to achieve their respective foreign policy objectives. This historical fact underscores why nations need a robust nuclear deterrent to protect themselves from the aggressive designs of competing powers.
    I realize that nuclear weapons are horrible, and it would be nice if they could be eliminated. But unfortunately due humanity’s violent and greedy tendencies, the fact that these weapons are so awful has probably been the main factor insuring that there has been no repeat of a type of cataclysm comparable the Second World War since 1945.
    I further believe that the fact that if nuclear weapon were use in anger, one of the major consequences would be that the 1% would die along with the rest of us. In my opinion, I believe that the fact that the ruling class and their families would be deracinated in the nuclear fires has up to now has been one of the main factors that has ensured that these weapons have not been employed since Nagasaki.
    In many respects humanity is caught in dilemma. To quote Winston Churchill, “In the future, survival will be twinned with annihilation. And continued peace will be paired with terror.” Unfortunately, no naive prattling about the need for universal peace and amity on the part of the peace movement will alter this fundamental truth.
    One can illustrate this point by comparing the respective situations of North Korea and Iran vs the United States. The fact that North Korea has a stockpile of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to their respective targets has been one of the main factors in insuring their immunity from American military action. In contrast to North Korea, the fact that Iran does not at present have an arsenal of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to targets in Europe and the continental United States, has left them open to NATO aggression. If the Iranians had such weapons, I doubt that the United States and it’s allies would take the risk of waging the type of covert war with the Iranians that they are currently engaged in, especially if it courted the risk of the loss of London and New York.

  3. Elizabeth Juanita Campbell


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