Last night, I attended a presentation on the medical implications of Fukushima and Chernobyl. The lecture was given by Dr. Helen Caldicott, the World’s foremost activist for the anti-nuclear movement. I went into the event knowing full well her opinions would be counter to my own, but I was interested in learning how she presented her argument. I figured if all else, it would be a social learning experience. The lecture was held in the Sustainable Learning Center at the University of South Carolina and was sponsored by the Midland’s Sierra Club. This may have been a red-flag for some with experience in the nuclear industry, but I optimistically assumed young environmentalists in attendance would see the light and come to see Nuclear energy as a carbon-free and sustainable form of power.
Ultimately, I hoped this presentation would provide a platform for discussion —And it did, but not nearly as peaceably as I envisioned. I imagined proponents of nuclear refuting the speaker’s false statements and exaggerations (respectfully, of course), the speaker conceding to our reasoning, and the whole night ending in a campfire kumbaya session between the opposing groups. Instead, Dr. Caldicott refused questions, became increasingly hostile and arrogant, and created a strained environment for everyone. The worst part is that Dr. Helen Caldicott wants to raise the blood pressure of her audience: She uses fear and misinformation to scare her audience into believing that all nuclear power plants kill, cause cancer, and are nothing short of nuclear bombs.
The talk started relatively well—granted, I could tell she was angry from the second she walked in the room. She began by affirming “it’s inappropriate to lie with science.” Whatever hope that instilled in me for the rest of the talk was quickly crushed by the load of distorted and misrepresented facts she started free flowing. To get the audience’s blood boiling, she commented on the event’s location—Columbia, South Carolina. In her own words, she chastised, “I would not live here- it’s really dangerous.” The audience gasped and since she had everyone where she wanted them, she compounded her accusations with a disturbing history of nuclear energy research. With regards to Madame Curie, Dr. Caldicott stated “she was so radioactive; she almost glowed in the dark.” I knew that was a joke-whether or not it was intended as such– but the audience members? It is ridiculous fears like glowing in the dark that drive public confusion and fear toward the nuclear industry.
Then Dr. Caldicott attacked chocolate. At that point, she accelerated her point loss in my book. In her expert opinion, Hershey’s chocolate gives you cancer. Her reasoning? The Hershey’s Chocolate factory is located near Three Mile Island. She claims that the cow’s milk in the area is still contaminated with very high levels of Cs-137, Sr-90, and I-131. I may be going out on a limb here, but I bet she doesn’t have any evidence to substantiate that claim. I haven’t gotten around to it yet myself, but I encourage scintillation testing on Hershey’s bars. Feel free to report back findings.
To address the medical implications of Fukushima, Dr. Caldicott cited ‘a study’ that showed within a group of 3,000 children, 1,000 had thyroid nodules. An audience member inquired about the typical occurrence of thyroid nodules in children. Dr. Caldicott dodged the question and was asked again to provide values. She became even more defensive than she already was and finally said thyroid nodules “are rarer than hen’s teeth.” I located the research Dr. Caldicott referred to and it was a legitimate study. However, the lead researcher, Dr. Mitsuyoshi Urashima (a pediatric Oncologist in Tokyo), said that although thyroid nodules were present it was not clear whether this presented a high percentage. Furthermore, he affirmed that no thyroid cancers had been detected thus far. And as for all evacuees from areas surrounding Fukushima– Dr. Caldicott plainly stated “they’re all going to die.” With that opinionated retort, Dr. Caldicott decided she would no longer accept questions.
With regards to Chernobyl, Dr. Caldicott claimed over a million people have died. Compare that to the findings in the World Health Organization. The WHO report on Chernobyl concluded that beyond 28 liquidators who died by acute radiation sickness, there may be up to 4,000 additional cancer deaths among the highest exposed groups. All in all, this corresponds to a 3-4% increase above the normal incidence of cancer in the population. Had Dr. Caldicott acknowledged my question about her figure, I’m sure she would have countered by saying something about the WHO being corrupt. In past media interviews, Dr. Caldicott has stated that the WHO is part of a massive conspiracy to hide the true death toll surrounding Chernobyl. She also showed slides with pictures of deformed children and claimed that all abnormalities in the Ukraine could be attributed to the fallout from Chernobyl. However, according to Gerry Thomas, who worked for the United Nations Scientific Committee on Effects of Atomic Radiation, “there is absolutely no evidence” for an increase in birth defects. Are we to believe the UN is involved in a conspiracy as well?
Throughout the remainder of the talk, Dr. Caldicott threw out exaggerated numbers, claims, and attacks. In one instance, she said that subjecting a U-235 atom to a neutron flux makes the material 5,000 times more radioactive than if it were simply left in the ground. At that point an audience member asked if she would go through the math she used to reach that figure. The question was certainly not out of line- throughout the entire lecture she had waived around a dry erase marker and used it for figures and sketches on the whiteboard-yet she snapped back, and said that she had seen the research and he didn’t need to see the math. The audience member apologized and said they were only interested because their passion was mathematics. Dr. Caldicott’s fevered response was, “the math is in my book, you can check it there!”
Dr. Caldicott concluded her lecture by comparing nuclear power plants to nuclear weapons. She claimed that there was no truth behind the term “atoms for peace.” Rather, the nuclear energy industry was a front for the nuclear weapons industry. She went on to terrorize the audience with statistics from the Cold War- citing thousands of nuclear weapons per country and detailing the chilling affects a nuclear war would have on civilization. I don’t so much doubt her numbers on nuclear weapons; I just wonder why they were relevant to the lecture. She attacked the Megatons to Megawatts program even though she had just asserted that stockpiles of nuclear weapons pose a massive threat to humanity. One of her arguments against the program was that MOX fuel could only be used in Sodium cooled reactors. In reality, MOX fuel can be used in thermal light water reactors, as well. However, that doesn’t create quite the same stir in the audience as the promise that any leak in the Sodium coolant will lead to an explosion.
After the lecture, Dr. Caldicott refused to take questions and after signing a few of her books in a corner, rushed out of the lecture hall. She planned to instill fear and tension in the audience and it worked. The frustration from her refusal to answer questions coupled with her hateful responses those that she did respond to, left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. Rather than coming across as an intelligent and powerful woman, Dr. Caldicott came across as a harsh and argumentative radical. Her premature exit from the lecture hall turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It allowed the audience to voice concerns and interact with one another rationally. A leader from the Sierra Club approached me and asked me what I thought of the new licenses at VC Summer. I told him I was honestly excited and that I saw the licenses as a positive push for the nuclear industry. He naturally inquired about safety and expressed his fears about building new plants in the area. I explained the passive safety features of the AP1000 and by the end of the conversation he felt less anxious about the new builds. All in all, the lecture proved to be a learning experience for nearly everyone involved—but it was certainly not attributable to the ‘good doctors’ teachings.