Dr. Helen Caldicott, the pioneering Australian antinuclear activist and pediatrician who spearheaded the global nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s and co-founded Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), has joined with left-leaning environmental groups here in an uphill fight to halt nuclear power as a “solution” to the global warming crisis. “Global warming is the greatest gift the nuclear industry has ever received,” Dr. Caldicott told Truthout.
The growing rush to nuclear power was only enhanced, experts say, by the weak climate deal at the Copenhagen 15 climate conference. The prospects for passage of a climate bill in Congress – virtually all versions are pro-nuclear – were enhanced, most analysts say, because it offered the promise that China might voluntarily agree to verify its carbon reductions and it could reassure senators worried about American manufacturers being undermined by polluters overseas. But at the two-week international confab that didn’t produce any binding agreements to do anything, Caldicott and environmental activist groups were marginalized or, in the case of the delegates from Friends of the Earth, evicted from the main hall.
The upshot of the latest trends boosting nuclear power – although no nuclear reactor has been built in America since the 1970s – are indeed grim, she said. “Nothing’s going to work to stop them but a meltdown,” she said, fearing the prospects of such a calamity. “I don’t know how else the world is going to wake up.”
Her fears may sound apocalyptic, but as Truthout will explore in more depth in part II of this article, the dangers of a meltdown, terrorist attack and radiation damage are far greater than commonly known. That’s because of what federal and Congressional investigators, advocacy groups and medical researchers say is a culture of sloppy security, health and safety oversight by a cozily pro-industry Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (An NRC spokesman denied those allegations in a written statement to Truthout.) The quasi-independent agency is funded primarily by fees from nuclear power plants. On top of all that, the Obama administration is planning to offer about $20 billion in loan guarantees to fund two new uncertified and risky reactors designs that have faced safety and cost overrun problems overseas.
Despite nuclear energy’s apparent dangers, Dr. Caldicott was a Cassandra crying out at the Copenhagen conference with little or no attention from the major government and media players there. Caldicott, who was featured on major American TV news shows and magazines during the 80s, who met one on one with President Reagan and addressed about a million people opposing nuclear weapons in New York City in June, 1982, found herself speaking to groups as small as 50 people in Copenhagen. Although still an active lecturer, author and radio broadcaster, she was essentially ignored by the media, even with the six minutes or so she was given to speak to an outdoor rally of 100,000 protesting the global leaders’ inaction inside the main hall. “It was a shemozzle,” she said of the conference, using the Yiddish word for a confusing mess.
In her brief speech outdoors in bitterly cold weather, you can see her speaking more slowly than in her usual lecture, so that not one word or grisly fact is missed by her international audience. But you can almost sense her frustration at boiling down into just over six minutes all that she knows about the dangers of atomic weapons and nuclear plants. While inside the Bella Center, no official who really counted was bothering listening to her – or the protesters:
She told the crowd:
The Earth is in the intensive care unit, it is acutely sick. We are all now physicians to a dying planet …
The nuclear power industry has used global warming to say “we’re the answer.” All the money to go into nuclear power, 15 billion dollars per power plant, is being stolen from the solutions to fix the earth – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, conservation.
The nuclear power industry is wicked. The nuclear power industry was formed by the bomb makers – it’s the same thing. Nuclear power plants are bomb factories – they make plutonium. Two hundred and fifty kilos a year of plutonium that lasts for 250,000 years. You need five kilos to make a nuclear bomb. Any country that has a nuclear power plant has a bomb factory.
If the Second World War were fought today in Europe, none of you would be here; Europe would be a radioactive wasteland because all the nuclear power plants would melt down like Chernobyl. So, war is now impossible in Europe. Do the politicians understand that?
Nuclear power produces massive quantities, hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste, which will get into the water, concentrate into the fish, the milk, the food, human breast milk, fetuses, babies, children. Radioactive iodine causes thyroid cancer. Twelve thousand people in Belarus had thyroid cancer. Radioactive Strontium 90 causes bone cancer and leukemia, [it] lasts for 600 years. Cesium 137 – all over Europe now – in the reindeer, in the lands, in the food, lasts for six hundred years, causes brain cancer. Plutonium, the most dangerous substance on Earth, 1 millionth of a gram cause cancer, lasts for 250,000 years. Causes lung cancer, liver cancer, testicular cancer, damages fetuses so they are born deformed.
Nuclear power, therefore, nuclear waste for all future generations will cause cancer in young children because they are very sensitive, [will cause] genetic disease, congenital deformities. Nuclear power is about disease, and it’s about death. It will produce the greatest public health hazard the world has ever seen for the rest of time. We must close down every single nuclear reactor in Europe and throughout the world…
That’s hardly the spirit of acceptance granted the nuclear industry as part of a hoped-for climate deal by world governments and environmental groups.
She was there for the first week as a guest of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and a science adviser to the Spanish government. But for a woman whose organization, PSR, won the Nobel Peace Prize and who has been cited by the Smithsonian as one of the most influential women of the 20th century, she was still unable to wangle even a three-minute opportunity to address the delegates. After she returned home to Australia, she saw the dreary news about the chaotic final days of the conference and the loophole-laden climate “accord.”
“I was deeply depressed,” she said. “I hadn’t done anything, and the world hadn’t done anything in the face of an impending catastrophe.”
It also reinforced her anger at those environmental groups that haven’t strongly opposed nuclear power while they’re supporting legislation that sees nuclear energy as a vital element in reducing carbon emissions. “They’ve sold their souls,” she said bluntly, while attacking the ties of some key groups to the energy industry, especially in such alliances as the US Climate Action Partnership that includes such outfits as Duke Power and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The well-funded coalition is widely credited as having set the template for both the main House and Senate climate bills that have passed the full House and the Senate Environment Committee – all containing provisions for nuclear energy.
Al Gore’s advocacy group, RePower America, also includes environmental and industry groups; a spokesperson said it hasn’t issued any statements on nuclear power and declined to answer charges that by failing to actively oppose nuclear power, it was allowing the spread of nuclear plants to undermine renewable solutions to global warming. (In his writings and some interviews, Al Gore has offered some criticisms of nuclear power, but the Nobel Prize winner hasn’t used his international platform to attack its role in pending legislation or potential treaties.)
In her interview with Truthout, she ripped into those environmental groups that didn’t take strong, public stands against climate bills that included nuclear power, even while she, in turn, has been derided as a Luddite or politically naive. “Some of the people within these organizations are not well educated about the biological effects of radiation and mutation, and what actually happens in the human body and the food chain,” she said. “So, they’ve gone soft on opposing nuclear power, and because they’re all very worried about global warming, they’re about to leap from the global warming frying pan to the nuclear fire.”
She continued, “You don’t replace one evil with another. Anyone who promotes an industry that will induce a global nuclear war that will mean the end of most life on earth, the final epidemic of the human race; or anyone who promotes an industry that down the time track will induce hundreds of thousands of cases of childhood cancers and leukemia, and babies being born grossly deformed; or anyone who would promote an industry that actively promotes disease when we’re so worried about cancer and spend all this money trying to cure it – well, they have sold their souls as far as I’m concerned.”
I noted, “They say they’re not promoting it,” they’re just not actively opposing it.
“If you don’t actively oppose it, it will get through. They know that,” she responded – “especially with all the advertising being spent on by the nuclear industry which is a bunch of lies.” She added, “If you talk to the average person, they believe all this stuff. The power of propaganda is enormous.”
But environmental groups contacted by Truthout deny her claim that they’ve “sold their souls” or failed to vigorously criticize the nuclear industry, pointing to letters and testimony to Congressional committees. Tom Cochran, the senior scientist at NRDC’s nuclear program and perhaps the leading progressive expert on nuclear reactors in the country, pointed out, “Our position is that we’re opposed to additional federal subsidies for the construction of new nuclear plants, but NRDC is in favor of getting climate legislation through the House and Senate. In terms of process, we’re happy to move the process along.” He noted, for instance, “We don’t support all the principles of Kerry-Graham-Lieberman,” the most pro-industry proposal so far. “Our position is clear: we do not support additional subsidies.”
When I asked at what funding amount of subsidies the NRDC might be willing to draw a “line in the sand” and oppose the legislation, he replied, “I’m not going to negotiate through your publication.”
Caldicott and other experts say that even the claims that nuclear power is “clean air energy” fall apart when examined carefully. They have pointed out how over the full fuel lifecycle of a plant – from mining uranium to shipping it to “decommissioning” a plant – the nuclear process emits far more carbon and other greenhouse gases than the industry and its cheerleaders (and environmentalist enablers) admit. Indeed, according to one major study she cited, because of the need to find more uranium as higher-grade uranium disappears, using the poorer quality ores would “produce more C02 emissions than burning fossil fuels directly.”
Even so, “there’s a push for nuclear power,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth US. He noted that there were no limits on nuclear power in this latest nonbinding climate agreement – unlike the earlier Kyoto treaty, which the US didn’t sign, that restricted subsidies for nuclear power. And grassroots groups largely aren’t fighting back in a high-profile way against the industry’s drive for a $100 billion bailout in federal subsidies. “Right now, the environmental community wants a climate bill,” said Pica, whose group, along with Greenpeace and a few others, hasn’t supported the legislation moving through Congress, asserting it’s too industry-friendly.
They include the Obama administration and its top scientists; an industry that has successfully sold itself as “clean air energy;” the tacit acceptance or muted opposition of such major environmental groups as the Sierra Club and the relative silence on the issue by most influential environmental journalists. All of them are joined in what critics view as a near-“conspiracy of silence” about nuclear power in order to advance the goal of supporting a purportedly carbon-reducing climate bill that can pass Congress.
Indeed, neither most grassroots environmentalists nor members of the broader progressive movement have been engaged to fight a nuclear bailout of $100 billion, if not trillions, in loan guarantees for nuclear plants that would, critics say, dry up funds for renewable industries that could be up and running quickly. In contrast, it takes as long as 10 years to build nuclear plants while the perils of global warming – from rising ocean levels to drought – have already begun.
The largely indifferent response to nuclear power has been in part because activists have taken their cues from leading national environmental organizations and progressive media outlets. And with a few exceptions, such as Mother Jones or Greenpeace, they have not aggressively opposed the advancement of nuclear energy in their eagerness for a climate bill. That stands in sharp contrast to the grassroots environmentalist opposition that coalesced against including a $50 billion bailout in 2007 energy legislation, including a superstar rock video. Despite new petitions today, the organizing against nukes is woefully outdone by supporters of the current climate legislation.
Yet, Helen Caldicott’s passion for stopping nuclear power hasn’t eased, and although she’s older now, she still brings the same fervor and implacable determination to explain the dangers of nuclear energy that she did as a glamorous activist in her 40s speaking to a larger global audience. It was well captured in an Oscar-winning documentary short, “If You Love This Planet,”now the title of her syndicated radio show and updated book: