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.”
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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.
Cesium is a gamma emitter like x-rays, but it also emits a beta particle — a little tiny electron. Cesium is like potassium. It’s ubiquitous, it’s in all cells of the body. So it causes brain cancers, rare muscle cancers, it can cause cancer of the testicles and ovary. It can mutate genes and sperm and the eggs, causing genetic disease down generations. Cesium lasts for 600 years and reconcentrates in food for the rest of time.
You can’t test, see or smell these things in the food. You don’t know you’re eating radioactive food and you don’t know when you get your cancer it was caused by cesium-137 you ate twenty years ago. Now when the cesium gets into the brain for instance, it just irradiates a tiny volume of cells. Those cells may die because they get such a heavy dose. Some remain viable, but the regulatory gene that controls cell division is mutated and changed. So, when the cell starts to divide it’s not regulated and it produces trillions of cells. That’s the cancer. It takes a single mutation and a single gene to kill you. And it’s very quiet and cryptogenic and silent. Radiation is a silent killer.
Baskin: So the fact that the death toll stands at an estimated 15,000, with another 3,000 people missing tells us nothing about the ultimate death toll?
Caldicott: Very few people died from the radiation as far as we know. To die in a short period of time, you have to get a whopping dose of 250 to 500 rems. That’s called the LD50, the lethal dose at which 50 percent die. Now, some of the workers at Fukushima almost certainly got those doses, but you don’t know because they’re bringing in homeless men from Tokyo [to work at the nuclear reactors]. They’re called nuclear sponges and they soak up the doses. Ukuza — that’s the name of organized crime, like the mafia — they’re involved in bringing in people to work at the reactors.
There’s a lot of nasty stuff going on. We don’t know what’s happening to those men at all. It’s not being recorded. Some don’t wear radiation monitors. That’s number one. So some might be dying, but we don’t expect anyone to be dying yet. That’s what really gives me the dry rot, as we’d say in Australia.
Interviewers and journalists don’t understand the latent period of carcinogenesis, the time it takes for radiation to induce cancer. However, we are seeing something new in the history of medicine. They examined 3,000 children in Itati, which received a really high dose and looked at their thyroids. Thirty percent — one-third — have thyroid tumors. Now that’s really early. That’s within the first year. That’s unheard of. Now the Japanese government says they’ll follow them up, that’s medically criminal.
If a child has a tumor, you take the tumor out or you put a fine needle in and suck out some cells and see if they’re cancer. If some of those children have cancer and I’m sure they do, their thyroid should be removed. And then, even then, the children may die later from the metastases of their tumors. So we are seeing really early results of the radiation in children, because they’re so sensitive to radiation. It's the tip of the iceberg and it’s a premonition of something much worse to come.
Baskin: Worse than Chernobyl?
Caldicott: Well you know, it now seems from the literature and the New York Academy of Sciences that over a million have died from Chernobyl — from cancers and heart disease and congenital deformities and diabetes, all sorts of things. And it seems from the data that Fukushima is 2.5 to 3.0 times worse in radioactive emissions than Chernobyl. So therefore you multiply one million by three and this is only the first twenty-five years after Chernobyl. Nuclear accidents never end, because the food remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. They never end.
Baskin: You’re here to participate in a panel, “Lessons from Fukushima for the Northwest.” The Pacific Northwest is in the Cascadia Subduction Zone and the state has the largest nuclear waste site in the Western Hemisphere on the Columbia River at Hanford. The nuclear reactor still supplies energy. What lesson should be learned?
Caldicott: You must close down all of your reactors tomorrow, for God’s sake. I can’t understand how people swallow wholesale the arguments from the nuclear power industry that it’s safe. Even children would say, "But Daddy, why are they keeping these things open?"
Diablo Canyon and San Onofre lie on major earthquake faults. What on earth do they think they’re up to? There’s some sort of psychological imperative, I would say, in these men’s brains, in their reptilian midbrains I think. They see nuclear power as some sort of adjunct to their testosterone.
We need to look at the psychological cause of why they’re so addicted to the splitting of the atom. It’s not counting the number of reactors or the number of cancers, it’s looking at the cause of the pathology. That’s what we have to do in medicine. If we can’t find out the cause of a disease, the entimology, we can’t cure it and the cause of this nuclear addiction is psychological. We’ve got to have the courage to start looking at these men’s brains.
Baskin: Dr. Caldicott, you’re a firm believer in political change. Can you draw connections between GE, the nuclear regulatory industry, and policy making in Washington D.C.?
Caldicott: Well, it’s the same in Tokyo. TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, really runs the government and it runs the little communities where they build the nuclear power station because they build the roads and lovely clubs. Poor fishing villages suddenly become wealthy and so they like the new nuclear power station, which is emitting a million picocuries of trillium per day and which is also why we’re finding a high incidence of leukemia in children less than five living near the reactors. They’ve become addicted to it.
Now in America, GE — which makes good things for life like stoves, irons, and refrigerators — also makes nuclear power plants, nuclear missiles, and is weaponizing space. It’s a wicked corporation that pours millions of dollars into the coffers of the people in Congress. They’re all corporate prostitutes, except maybe Bernie Sanders.
You can’t have a government that’s run by wicked corporations and people need to spend millions to get elected. Look at Santorum. No, he doesn’t have much money. Look at Romney. It’s obscene. Almost every person in the Senate is a millionaire. So you need to emulate Australia: a) voting is compulsory, b) registration is compulsory (I mean you’re registered because of your postal address) and c) our campaigns are only three weeks long. I ran for Parliament and nearly won and got paid by the federal government for my expenses. That’s what needs to happen.
Baskin: You’ve been quoted saying the nuclear power industry has been delivered a set-back with Fukushima.
Caldicott: Fukushima, I predict, means the end of the nuclear power industry. It’s already happening in Japan. Look, in Japan 30 percent of its energy was generated by nuclear power. Now they have fifty-four reactors, but only two are now running. Guess what! They haven’t died. They’re surviving.
They’re turning off their AC maybe, they have to sweat in the summer, but that’s why we’ve got sweat glands. The latent heat of vaporization keeps us cool. Maybe we have to live with much less electricity. America generates 20 percent of its energy from nuclear power, but you waste 28 percent of your electricity by leaving your lights on for God’s sake. Americans have an awful sense of entitlement.
Well, you can’t have that anymore. You’ve got to learn to tighten your belts and have social responsibility. We’re killing the earth from global warming. We’re killing it from nuclear waste and killing it from massive nuclear accidents. We have to wake up and realize we have a huge responsibility toward our children, our beloved grandchildren, and our future generations.
Baskin: Protests and public outcry in Japan have been critical to keeping Japan’s nuclear power industry dormant. Women in particular have risen up.
Caldicott: Yes, the women for the first time are rising up. Japan is really a feudalistic society, but for the first time the women are saying, "Hey, wait a minute. What about my fetus? What about my children?" And they’re getting angry. I always say an aroused woman is unstoppable and when the women get going, by God, things change.
But it’s not just public outcry. The expense is absolutely enormous. You can’t build reactors now without the taxpayers paying for them. It’s all totally paid for by the taxpayers dollars. You’ve got to say, "OK, that’s it. I’m finished. I’m not going to do it anymore."
Baskin: In the decade preceding Fukushima and still today in the US, nuclear power is promoted by politicians as a clean energy alternative. Is it?
Caldicott: They’re lying. Or they’re scientifically illiterate, which most are. Nuclear power plants don’t stand alone. They’re underpinned by huge industrial infrastructure. You have to mine millions of tons of uranium. How do you do that? Fossil fuels. You have to then crush it in big millers to turn it into fine powder. More fossil fuels. You have to enrich the uranium. In America — where most of the Western world’s uranium is enriched — in Paducca, Kentucky, they have two huge, old, one thousand megawatt coal fire plants to enrich the uranium.
What does that mean? 93 percent of the CFC gas, which is a global warming gas ten to twenty thousand times more potent than CO2, is emitted from that Paducca enrichment plant into the atmosphere in America per year. Ninety-three percent. That adds enormously to global warming.
Then you have to build the reactor which uses huge amounts of CO2 from cement production. Then you have to decommission it. More CO2. Then you have to transport the radioactive waste somewhere and store it safely for a million years (according to the EPA). More fossil fuel. In fact nuclear power produces an enormous quantity of global warming gas. So they lie.
Now I don’t believe that scientists should lie. In medicine, if I lied, I would be de-registered. I would be damaging or killing my patients. It’s scientifically irresponsible to lie, in fact criminal. The planet is in the intensive care unit. It’s acutely ill. We are all now physicians to a dying planet.
Baskin: Are other countries showing more caution toward nuclear power after Fukushima? You were just in Germany.
Caldicott: Germany will phase out nuclear power by 2022. Italy and Switzerland have decided against it and anti-nuclear activists in Japan have gained traction. China remains cautious on nuclear power. Yet the nuclear enthusiasm of the US, Britain, Russia, and Canada continues unabated.
The industry, meanwhile, has promoted new modular and “advanced” reactors as better alternatives to traditional reactors. They’re subject to the same risks — accidents, terrorist attacks, human error, earthquakes. Many also create fissile material for bombs as well as the legacy of radioactive waste.
If you go: “Lessons from Fukushima for the Northwest,” Friday at 7 pm and Saturday at 9 am, Temple United Methodist Church. Go to wpsr.org for information. For more about the film Surviving Japan go to survivingjapan.com.