An interview with longtime anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott
Photo: Greg Barrett.
In 1971, Helen Caldicott had an epiphany: all life on earth could end at any moment, simply because a few pig-headed people imagined they could “win” a nuclear war. A decade later, she had given up her promising medical career to devote her life to nothing short of saving the world.
Her urgent Australian twang became a sane voice in a world gone mad. In 1985, the Caldicott-inspired International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War won the Nobel Peace Prize. The organization beat out Caldicott herself, who had been nominated by Linus Pauling, the renowned chemist, anti-nuclear activist, and 1962 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
By the end of the Cold War, Caldicott had attempted a quiet retirement in Australia. But that didn’t last. Today, with a renewed push to develop nuclear weapons in the U.S. and other countries and nuclear energy slithering back onto the table, the threat is as present as ever, as she writes in The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush’s Military-Industrial Complex.
With her latest endeavor, the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, Caldicott seeks to counter the media offensives of the nuclear industry. Meanwhile, she’s working on a new book — her sixth — about the psychopathologies of nuclear decision makers.
Grist met with Caldicott in San Francisco, where she was planning a fund-raiser around the release of Helen’s War, a sobering film about her initial efforts to get NPRI off the ground in the midst of post-9/11 groupthink.
There’s a concerted effort right now to rehabilitate the image of nuclear power. Proponents argue that fossil fuels are more damaging to the environment, as well as being in short supply, and that nuclear is the [best option going forward]. What’s going on here?
The people saying these things are not biologists, they’re not geneticists, they’re not physicians. In other words, they don’t know what they’re talking about. And that makes me very annoyed. First of all, every reactor produces about [20 to 30] tons of highly radioactive waste a year. The majority of it is very long-lived and will have to be isolated from the ecosphere for hundreds of thousands of years … As it leaks into the environment, it will bio-concentrate by orders of magnitude at each step of the food chain: algae, crustaceans, little fish, big fish, us.
It takes a single mutation in a single gene in a single cell to kill you. [The most common plutonium isotope] has a half-life of 24,400 years. Every male in the Northern Hemisphere has a small load of plutonium in his gonads. What that means to future generations God only knows — and we’re not the only species with testicles. What we’re doing is degrading evolution, and not many people understand that.
Yet as society begins to recognize that we do have to get away from the petroleum economy, there’s a lot of enthusiasm amongst environmentalists for hydrogen — enthusiasm that’s shared by the nuclear industry.
Well, of course, they’ll do anything. I’ve been dealing with them for 30 years and they lie — they frighten me. I can debate with generals about nuclear war and feel much more comfortable because they know that what I’m talking about is true. The nuclear industry just lies its way through the whole thing.
They say nuclear power is the answer to global warming. Well … the [Department of Energy] and the EPA [will tell you] that, at the moment, the process of uranium enrichment for fuel for nuclear power releases huge quantities of CO2. And that does not include releases from decommissioning of the reactor and transportation and long-term storage of the waste.
Meanwhile, the enrichment of uranium is responsible for [over 90 percent] of the CFC-114 gas released into the air in the U.S. Now, CFC is banned internationally under the Montreal Protocol because it destroys the ozone layer, one. Two, CFC gas is 10,000 to 20,000 times more potent as a global warmer and heat trapper than CO2. So the nuclear industry is lying. And advocates for nuclear power have fallen for the nuclear industry’s lies. Not propaganda, but lies.
Of course we’ve got to stop burning oil and coal. Those grotesque vehicles that get 10 miles to the gallon should be banned! Americans have no idea about conservation. Europeans have the same standard of living as you and they use 50 percent less energy because they turn their lights off and they conserve. We are actively killing the earth by the way we live.
But some European countries derive more of their power from nuclear energy than the U.S.
Many countries in Europe are starting to realize that what they’ve done with nuclear power is ridiculous and immoral. Belgium, Germany, and Sweden have now passed laws to close down the reactors. So they’re learning, but a little too late. Where are they going to put the waste?
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., we’re going in the other direction, talking about new nuclear plants and even new nuclear weapons. Why now?
Because the nuclear scientists in the labs keep pushing and pushing. They like building and testing their nuclear weapons. They get a lot of money for it, and they’re addicted to it.
The generals like their missiles too. One general basically said, “If you threaten our missiles and our early-warning systems, baby, that’s threatening the family jewels.” Got it? That’s the reason they’re still there. Missiles are an extension of their sexuality. There’s a deep psychosexual pathology inherent in the brains of these men. “Missile erections,” “deep penetrations” — even the language they use is sexual. I’ve thought, in my more light-hearted times, that maybe they should all be given Viagra, and then they wouldn’t need their missiles.
Although women have also led nuclear-equipped countries, and very aggressively.
Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Golda Meir. But you’re picking three women out of millions of men. Some women — very few — emulate male behavior. Condoleezza Rice is one. The magic number is 30 percent [according to a U.N. report]. Below 30 percent representation [in government], women tend to please the men and vote for missiles. Above 30 percent, they say, “No, you’re not getting your missiles — we’re voting for milk for children.” So women need to support each other in order to do what they know is correct behavior, and express their nurturing instincts. It’s got nothing to do with politics.
Most of the nuclear-policy focus lately has been on the various dangerous, unpredictable regimes that are busily acquiring nuclear weapons. Why does yours continue to be on the United States?
The most dangerous regime in the world at the moment is this regime. The country with the largest number of weapons of mass destruction is America. Of the nearly 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world, Russia and America own 95 percent. No one else can destroy all life on earth except Russia and America. The two rogue nations in the world are Russia and America, holding the world at nuclear ransom. Period.
We got to within 10 seconds of nuclear war in 1995 when Yeltsin made a mistake. On 9/11, America was on the second- or third-highest state of nuclear alert, ready to launch. Weapons are still on hair-trigger alert. They go off, Putin and Bush get minutes to decide whether or not to press their buttons, the nuclear “exchange” is over in an hour, and that’s the end of most life on earth.
And to look at North Korea, who may have two or eight bombs, or none — that’s a form of displacement activity. If you put rats in a cage and threaten them with a lethal situation, they run around doing something irrelevant to that which threatens them. That’s what people are doing by looking at North Korea and not looking at the main issue at hand, which is about to blow us all up. I mean, the whole thing’s insane.
It’s interesting that you have a lot of inroads with military people. And a lot of the people who have come out for nuclear disarmament in the last decade have military backgrounds. Why do you think that is?
Well, because they know how dangerous it is. They’re scared.
And yet you’d think they are also in a position to do something about it.
Well, you know, they wait till they’re retired. That’s typical of these men. It’s not that they have an epiphany — they know all along. So, in a way, they’re acting as evil people by allowing it to happen during their watch and only coming out when they retire. And I use that word “evil” in a fairly careful way. They are participating in plans to blow up the planet. I can’t think of any other word that’s more appropriate to describe that than “evil.”
Yet today, in spite of this well-documented danger, the issue’s not at the forefront of many people’s awareness. There’s a great deal of complacency.
Well, ignorance. I don’t think anyone’s shocking people into facing reality right now. I’m trying and it’s not so easy because I don’t get access to the media. It’s hard to get on a lot of stupid shows and talk the truth. They don’t want the truth. They want theater.
I founded NPRI as a way to get this access. So that I, and others, can get on to debate these awful right-wing characters from the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute. We need equal time, and that’s difficult to come by. But it’s starting to happen where we’re developing a fair bit of credibility.
In mid-May, we’re having a symposium called “Full Spectrum Dominance.” It will be a retreat for 40 of the nation’s top journalists with some pro-nuclear people, anti-, and people in the middle — the top thinkers in the country. Many people say to me, “This is urgent — we need media education because no one’s writing about it.” The media is determining the fate of the earth.
You met with Ronald Reagan when he was president — in an interview with Amy Goodman you described an oddly touching scene of holding his hand to comfort him — but you came away devastated by the feeling that there was nothing to be done. Have you tried to meet with George W. Bush?
No. I think Reagan had a heart; he was basically a nice fellow. I don’t think this fellow has a lot of heart. And I also don’t think he’s very bright. Reagan was intelligent in an intuitive way. There was someone at home there you could actually connect with. I’d certainly see George Bush and try to talk to him, but I wouldn’t want any of his neo-conservative people around him. I’d have to work pretty hard, I think, to get to his core.
Do you think there’s anybody else — some other avenue into the administration?
No, I don’t think there’s anyone there at the moment who is really worth talking to. I think they’re terribly blocked and terribly dangerous. They practice psychic numbing — that’s the medical terminology — to block out what they’re doing. They’re doing evil and not looking at it. But I tell you what: I treated a lot of these fellows on their deathbeds, or when their children were dying, and when they’re in that very emotionally vulnerable situation they recant. They look at themselves and look inside their souls and realize what they’ve done, and they’re terribly sorry. But it’s too late then.
In the film Helen’s War, there’s a sense that you’ve come out of retirement to go back into the fray. This has been your mission since 1971, and yet here we are, almost 35 years later —
I know, and it’s worse. I often feel like I’ve wasted my life doing this work for no good reason, because I love medicine. I gave it up to do this work. People have been saying that I might have helped prevent a nuclear war in the 1980s, but who knows?
I was compelled to do it. I couldn’t stop myself. But am I glad I did it? If we had gotten rid of the bombs I’d be very glad, and die fulfilled. I think, though, we’ve got a chance now to get the revolution going again — to build it again and complete the work. All doctors have to be optimists.
Looking back, what stands out as your greatest success?
Of my whole life? The biggest thing I ever did was give birth to my three babies. That’s why we’re here, to reproduce — biologically speaking. Next to that, I guess it was the end of the Cold War, but in truth, when that occurred, my husband had just left me. So I was deeply depressed and I hardly knew the Berlin Wall came down, which was sort of ironic.
You’ve done an incredible thing; you’ve completely dedicated your life to what you believe in. Not everyone can do that.
Why not? Not everyone wants to do it, but everyone can do it. It’s a decision you make. I’ve seen so many people die unfulfilled. And those who’ve dedicated their lives to great causes of service to the environment and to the human race have died totally fulfilled.
I think people have to examine why they were conceived, why they were born. It’s our responsibility in this particular generation, when life on earth — probably the only life in the universe — is so threatened.
Everyone can be extraordinarily effective, they just have to not be self-indulgent or narcissistic or greedy, and work for other people and other things. In that action lie the germs of true happiness. You’ll never be happy trying to make yourself happy. It doesn’t work.
So if someone reads this interview, and they get to the end of it, and now they have the knowledge —
Then they have to act. Read The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush’s Military-Industrial Complex — there’s enough information in that so you could debate Rumsfeld at any time and beat him on television. And at the back of that book there’s a huge list of anti-nuclear groups all around the country and the world, and you can look up all the people making the weapons and where they live and how you can contact them. The CEOs of Lockheed Martin and Boeing and the like. It’s got a huge list of things you can do and places you can go and actions you can take. Knowledge is ammunition, but you have to work out what you’re going to do with your life to save the planet.
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