As the world remembers Fukushima, internationally acclaimed nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott — in Seattle this week for the event, “Lessons from Fukushima for the Northwest” — reminds the nation that nuclear fallout isn’t just for a year. Radiation is a silent killer, says Caldicott, and the repercussions remain for hundreds and hundreds of years. This week Green Acre Radio catches up with Caldicott and a local documentary filmmaker about his film, "Surviving Japan."
If you want an impassioned opinion about the dangers of nuclear power, talk to Dr. Helen Caldicott. The Nobel Peace Prize nominee and co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility has been alerting the public since she was a medical student in Australia. “At that time, 1956, Russia and America were blowing up bombs in the atmosphere with impunity. And I couldn’t understand as a young medical student why they were doing it because it was obvious what the genetic implications would be.”
In the soon to be released documentary Surviving Japan, local filmmaker Chris Noland brings us up close and personal to the disaster. Noland lived in Tokyo at the time of the nuclear disaster and volunteered with relief agencies. After meeting people whose voices weren’t being heard, he decided to tell their story. “I kind of empathized with them because I had the same questions and they weren’t getting answered for me either,” he says.
Questions like, what would the physical effects of the nuclear fallout be? “They told us what happened but they didn’t really tell us what it would do to our body or anything and then they backpedaled and said this is how nuclear power plants work. Nothing about the health effects.”
Noland joins journalists seeking information from government officials and TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company. Finally, he meets the mayor of the besieged town of Minamisoma who begged the world for supplies on YouTube. Mayor Sakori was one of the first officials to break the silence and speak against Japan’s investment in nuclear energy. “Nuclear power is not the answer,” he says in the film. “We need an alternative. This is an important time not only for Japan but for the entire world to start focusing on renewable energy.”
Noland also shares the story of Yumea Keller, a single mother who evacuated herself and her children after witnessing the first explosion. Keller says the government initially defined only a small area, close to the reactor, as being at risk. “Government and TEPCO wanted to keep the area small so they don’t have to pay too much money," he explains. "But the real victims here are children. They have done nothing wrong and we have responsibility to protect them.”
Click on the audio player above or here to listen.
Interview with Dr. Helen Caldicott, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility
Martha Baskin: What moved you to speak out against nuclear power years ago? I believe it was the French government’s atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.
Dr. Helen Caldicott: When I was about sixteen, I read a book by an Australian author, Nevil Shute, called On the Beach. It was about a nuclear war that occurred by accident in the Northern Hemisphere. Everyone died and the only people left alive were people in Melbourrne, Australia, which was so far south but gradually the radioactive fall out came down and killed everybody.
And at the end of that book the beautiful, elegant streets of Melbourne were still there and bits of pieces of paper were blowing in the breeze and that was the end of life on earth. So at that time, at fifteen, I lost my virginity. In other words I lost the purity and enthusiasm and joy for life knowing that at any time there could be a nuclear war and life on earth could be obliterated.
I then went to medical school and learned about how radiation affects the drosophila fruit fly and how mutation for crooked wings and the like are passed on generation to generation. At that time, 1956, Russia and America were blowing up bombs in the atmosphere with impunity and I couldn’t understand as a young medical student why they were doing it because it was so obvious what the genetic implications would be.
So I’ve always been deeply concerned. It wasn’t until the French blew up bombs in the Pacific after being kicked out of the Sahara desert and Algeria, and they contaminated Australia and our water supply, that I was able to write a letter to the paper and start to educate the Australian people that their children could get leukemia or cancer from the fall out. That was a successful campaign.
Baskin: Before we go further, it might be smart to help the reader understand external and internal radiation.
Caldicott: There are four sorts of radiation. One is x-rays and we’ve all been exposed to x-rays through the medical community. Two, there are gamma radiation, which is like x-rays — it goes right through your body. It only damages you at the instant the radiation passes through, you don’t become radioactive. Then there’s alpha and beta radiation, which are little particles that are omitted from radioactive atoms.
Now the International Atomic Energy Agency and UN agencies only look at external radiation. They don’t examine what gets inside your body. First of all, radiation is dangerous. No dosage is safe. It’s cumulative. Each dose you receive adds to your risk of getting cancer. In other words never have an unnecessary x-ray, never walk through those x-ray machines in the airport, which are absolutely criminal and be very, very careful.
The incubation time for cancer is the magical ace-up-the-sleeve of the nuclear industry. It takes five years post-radiation to get leukemia and fifteen to seventy years to develop a cancer from a radiation dose you receive many years ago. And the cancer, when it arises, doesn’t wear a little sign saying what caused it. So you have to take a whole irradiated population and expose and compare them to a non-exposed population epidemiologically to see how radiation causes cancer.
Next thing is children are ten to twenty times more sensitive to getting cancer from radiation than adults; fetuses thousands of times more so. One x-ray to the pregnant abdomen doubles the incidents of leukemia in that baby. Little girls are twice as sensitive as little boys. We don’t know why.
People in Fukushima have been exposed to two sorts of radiation: external radiation by being enveloped in a cloud of radioactive gases and cesium and strontium, which only affects them in the instant they’re enveloped or when the stuff lands on the soil and the radiation is emitted from the isotopes in the soil. That’s called ground shine. It especially affects children who are little and close to the ground.
But there’s another sort of radiation that lands on the soil and is bio-concentrated back into the food chain. For instance, cesium-137 lands on the soil, the grass and the roots suck it up into the spinach, the mushrooms, and the rice, and it concentrates by orders of magnitude — ten to a hundred times. Then the cattle eat the grass and so it’s concentrated in the meat and the milk. And then we stand highest on the apex of the food chain and so these elements concentrate most highly in our bodies.
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