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Dr Helen Caldicott: Truth is stranger than fission

Dr Helen Caldicott: Truth is stranger than fission
Helen Caldicott warns about the still-present nuclear danger

SCOTT HARRIS / scott@vueweekly.com

For more than 35 years, Dr Helen Caldicott has been an outspoken critic of the follies of the nuclear age, dedicating her life to shining a spotlight on the risks posed to human health and the environment by both nuclear weapons and the widespread use of nuclear power.

Caldicott, a trained pediatric physician who resigned in 1980 from her position at Boston’s Children’s Hospital Medical Center to work full time on the prevention of nuclear war on the eve of the Reagan Administration, has played a key role in the international anti-nuclear movement. Most notably, she was one of the co-founders of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the US affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in educating about the risks of nuclear war. She is also the author of seven books, including most recently 2006’s Nuclear Power is Not the Answer and 2007’s War in Heaven.

Dr Caldicott will be speaking at the University of Alberta next week, and Vue Weekly had the opportunity to speak with her by phone from Halifax in advance of her visit to the city.

VUE WEEKLY: Many people, particularly those in the nuclear industry, are talking about a renaissance in nuclear power. Can you talk about how this new interest in nuclear has come about?

HELEN CALDICOTT: The nuclear power industry was moribund after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and it became so expensive to build a reactor that it was just not in the cards. But they’ve been very clever. They’ve used the threat of global warming as an excuse to say, “Nuclear power is the answer because it’s emission-free.”

The truth is that to fuel a nuclear power plant you must mine millions of tonnes of uranium ore, you must remove the uranium from the ore, then you must enrich the uranium—although in Canada you do not do that—then you fashion the fuel rods and you build the reactor and then when you fission the fuel, you have to remove 30 per cent of it every year because it’s so radioactive you can’t use it anymore, it’s inefficient. And that’s radioactive waste, which must be isolated, cooled and stored from the environment for half a million years.

Now, if you add up all those steps, all of which use massive amounts of fossil fuels, at the moment a nuclear power plant produces about one-third the amount of CO2 as a similar-sized gas-fired plant. But within 10 or 20 years as uranium ore is depleted and used up, a nuclear power plant will produce the same amount as greenhouse gases as a similar-sized gas-fired plant—which don’t produce radioactive waste that will induce epidemics of malignancy, in children in particular, for the rest of time, and neither do you have the threat of a meltdown.

So the nuclear industry is lying, and has spent over $100 million in a huge propaganda exercise employing firms such as Hill & Knowlton—that huge PR firm that was used to convince people that smoking didn’t cause cancer for years and years. So they are, I would say as a scientist and a physician, one of the most malicious, mendacious industries—and I include tobacco in that—that I have ever seen in my professional career.

VW: The Canadian Nuclear Association says levels of radiation near a nuclear plant are safe, claiming that “Eating one banana a day for a month ... contains the same radiation dose as spending an entire year living alongside a nuclear power plant.” How do you respond to claims like this?

HC: How often have I heard that stupid argument used? It’s inane. It’s not true. There is some radioactive potassium in a banana because there is background radiation anywhere in the environment, but if you live near a reactor all sorts of elements are being emitted into the air. Noble gases such as krypton, xenon and argon, which don’t necessarily combine in the body, except they’re very fat soluble and when absorbed into the lung they tend to be deposited in the fatty tissues of the body, particularly the abdominal fat and upper thighs, and that’s where the gonads are situated. They’re very high in gamma emitters like X-Rays and the reproductive cells—the sperm and eggs—are located in that area, so we’re talking genetic malformation and chromosomal defects like Downs Syndrome and hemophilia and Cystic Fibrosis and the like, which won’t become apparent for many generations, but I’m telling you now as a geneticist, a physician and a pediatrician that that’s what nuclear power will propagate, not just in humans but all other species as well.

VW: Another claim that the industry often makes is that new nuclear reactors designs like the CANDU—one of which might be built in northern Alberta—are safe, that accidents like Chernobyl simply won’t happen.

HC: CANDU reactors are particularly dangerous and have a very bad track record. If you read my book, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, I discuss CANDU reactors: they’re consistently breaking down and developing defects. They’re very dangerous.

CANDU reactors are Canadian designed and they use unenriched uranium, but one of their problems is that they produce very pure unadulterated plutonium. Plutonium, of course, is the fuel for nuclear weapons. You need about five kilos to make yourself a bomb and each reactor makes about 250 kilos of plutonium a year. So any country that buys or uses a CANDU reactor has a bomb factory.

VW: Can you discuss the connection between nuclear weapons and the so-called “peaceful atom?”

HC: Nuclear power is the prodigy of the nuclear weapons industry. I knew many of the men who designed and made the bombs in the Manhattan Project, and they felt so guilt-stricken because they had vaporized 220 000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a flash of light that they felt they needed to do something good for society, so they developed the concept of the peaceful atom, whereby splitting the atom could be used to generate steam by boiling water—all a nuclear reactor does is boil water and the steam turns the turbine which generates electricity. They called it “sunshine units,” they said it would be too cheap to meter. People who were adept at propaganda were brought in by the industry to propagate the idea that these atoms were for peace. But it was no different from the atoms that we used to make the bombs and consistently are doing so now. Any county that has a reactor can make bombs, and in fact that’s happened in many areas of the world. So that’s a lie again.

VW: Can you talk about the issue of depleted uranium?

HC: When uranium is mined there are two isotopes or basic types of uranium: uranium-238 and uranium-235. Now, 235 is the fissionable one that is used in bombs and for nuclear power and it’s only present in 0.7 per cent in the natural ore. It must be enriched to three per cent for use in reactors, and above 50 per cent you can make bombs out of it. That which is left behind after enrichment is uranium-238—it’s called depleted but it’s not depleted of radiation in any way, shape or form. It’s depleted of uranium-235.

It has several very good properties for the military. It’s free, because it’s nuclear waste—it lies around in huge pilings, called tailings, of millions of tonnes which constantly emit radon into the air—and it’s 1.7 times more dense than lead. So if you make a solid anti-tank shell out of it, momentum equals mass by velocity, so you have a very solid mass and you’ll get a tremendous momentum out of a shell that’s fired from a tank and it will penetrate the other person’s tank, cutting through it like a hot knife through butter. But the uranium itself is pyrophoric, so that when the shell hits the other person’s tank, it bursts into flames and up to 80 per cent of it burns as it slices through the tank, producing tiny particles of less than five microns, which can be inhaled into the terminal air passages of the lung. The uranium is very carcinogenic and as such produces mutations in genes.

When America first invaded Iraq in 1992 they used up to 360 tonnes of this so-called ordinance near a town called Basra. My colleagues, pediatricians, noticed an increase in incidence of childhood cancers staring about four years later. Cancers in these children has increased such that there’s a 700 per cent increase in childhood cancers now in Basra. The other thing is that uranium is a heavy metal and as such is excreted through the kidney. It’s also excreted in the semen. And so there is a 700 per cent increase in severe congenital anomalies of babies born in Basra. Babies born without heads or brains, called anencephaly, babies born without arms or legs, babies with severe facial deformities—single eyes or no eyes and the like. And this medical anomaly of severe congenital malformations and childhood cancers will continue in that population for virtually the rest of time because the half-life of uranium-238 is 4.8 billion years. So what America has been doing is conducting a nuclear war against the people of Iraq. No explosions, just incredible contamination of their food, their air, their water and their bodies.

This last invasion of Iraq they’ve used over 2000 tonnes of this uranium ordinance in many cities including Falujah and Baghdad. They’ve used it in Afghanistan, they’ve used it in Kosovo. So this is a war crime beyond belief. There are no words to describe what it really means medically.

VW: Finishing closer to home, as you may know, Peace River may become the first municipality in Alberta to have a nuclear reactor. What would you say to politicians here about bringing nuclear power to the province?

HC: When I come to Alberta I’m speaking to some politicians and I will be saying that under no circumstances must you build a nuclear power plant, because they’re medically very dangerous. That people living nearby are at risk of developing a malignancy, particularly children. That the huge amounts of radioactive waste generated in a reactor—30 tonnes a year—last for half a million years and is loaded with materials such as strontium-90 that causes bone cancer and leukemia, cesium-137 that causes muscle sarcomas, brain tumours, ovarian carcinomas, plutonium that causes lung cancer, liver cancer, bone cancer, multiple melanomas, testicular cancer and the like and plutonium, which has a half-life of 24 400 years.

A nuclear reactor will add to the epidemics of childhood malignancy that will occur in this and future generations for the rest of time. This industry, which is really just being set up so we can turn a switch and turn on our lights for a short period of time—because uranium will run out within about 20 years—will leave a legacy to future generations for which they will be extremely upset. This is a medical problem—this is the ultimate problem in preventive medicine. V


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