Helen Caldicott, the Australia-born American physician and anti-nuclear activist of the late 1970s and early 1980s, was a practitioner of paediatrics at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston, U.S. A leading critic of nuclear technology and armament industries, she tried to conscientise the world through her almost solitary protest writings and TV and radio appearances against the dangers of nuclear technology for the environment.

In the light of Fukushima (2011), Chernobyl (1986) and Three Mile Island (1979) nuclear accidents (all of which happened after 1978) and the great concern they generated in the world during the last four decades, Caldicott's 1978 book Nuclear Madness assumes prophetic significance. We cannot ignore the several pieces of vital information missing from the reports of these accidents. Our treasure house of knowledge of nuclear technology is the poorer for these omissions. But what is more puzzling is the deliberate or accidental camouflaging of scientific truths from people's vision by well-informed people of national and international significance who ought to, and do know better.

Caldicott did not have any personal stake in taking a strong stand against nuclear technology. Such disinterested personalities are few in the 21st century, and hence this brief note to a brave doctor who took a stand in favour of universal safety. Her book is dedicated to “her children and all the children of the world.”

“As a physician, I contend that nuclear technology threatens life on our planet with extinction. All of us will be affected by radioactive contamination, unless we bring about a drastic reversal of our government's pro-nuclear policy,” she observed in the late 1970s.

Does her warning and appeal have some relevance to the Kudankulam? Do we need more damaging accidents than Fukushima to formulate our policy? For energy-starved countries, particularly those in the tropical regions such as ours, is not solar safer than nuclear energy?

Incidence of cancer

Caldicott drew the world's attention to the increased incidence of leukaemia and other forms of cancers and radiation hazards ever since the introduction of nuclear technology. The world bodies are still lackadaisical in their attitude to the dangers of nuclear technology — for the sake of the promotion of the laissez fair stance and profits of big energy companies. Despite the proven hazards of nuclear technology, many powerful nations went on, and still are going on, spreading the technology for generating electric power, but mainly for acquiring the military power to attack other countries or defend themselves from imaginary “first users” of nuclear arms.

If the world can phase out nuclear arms as suggested by Bertrand Russell and other great scientists of the world, where is the danger of “First Strike”? If the world can develop solar energy in tropical countries and find a way to distribute that energy to high energy consuming Western countries, where is the danger of “First Strike”?

After Fukushima, some European nations have started a re-think on nuclear technology. The Germans have decided to phase out nuclear reactors for energy by 2020 or so — that is within the next 10 years.

From her own anti-nuclear testing experiences spearheaded in Australia and the U.S., Caldicott learned the following valuable lessons that could prove useful to the protesters elsewhere in the world, Kudankulam included:

(a) “We can no loner afford to entrust our lives, and the lives and health of future generations, to politicians, bureaucrats, ‘experts' or scientific specialists, because all too often their objectivity is compromised.

(b) “Most government officials are shockingly uninformed about the medical implications of nuclear power — and yet they daily make life-and-death decisions in regard to these issues.”

(c) Some in the medical profession are too indifferent about larger questions and they are reluctant to look beyond their immediate research and treatment responsibilities.

(d) Many doctors remain silent about the medical hazards of nuclear technology despite their firm knowledge that nuclear radiation is a certain cause of cancer and genetic diseases.

(e) One may add to the above reasons that no scientist or researcher, industrialist or inventor has so far found a fool-proof method for the safe disposal of the large amount of radio-active waste generated by nuclear power plants all over the world.

It is well-known from Caldicott's time onwards that each 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor contains as much radio-active material as would be produced by one thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs. A meltdown in which fissioning and explosions, melting of overheated nuclear metallic cases, cores, etc., will lead to untold deaths in the plants concerned and their vicinity. Radioactivity will be spewed for thousands of miles, which will affect life in various neighbouring countries.

Radioactive wastes remain dangerous for more than 500,000 years! As mentioned before, no safe method of disposal or storage of nuclear waste has yet been found anywhere in the world!

Untold damage

Why can't our decision-makers and atomic safety regulators pay some attention to Caldicott's statement that each commercial nuclear reactor produces nearly 200 to 250 kg of plutonium every year, which is dangerous for at least half a million years? Plutonium is one of the deadliest elements in the world. Although naturally occurring plutonium is in very small quantities and does not pose a threat to human life, commercial production of the element can cause untold damage to our working and living environments.

Can we ever forget the initial euphoria the scientists, engineers and nuclear power advocates including industrialists created in the 1960s? Nuclear electric power was then touted by promoters as “too cheap to meter.” Thus the big power companies came into being. Governments of powerful nations such as the U.S., Germany, Japan, Russia (the Soviet Union), China and India approved nuclear technology as heaven-sent technology. But even today, 20 per cent of the world's energy needs is not met by the nuclear technology. And Germany and some other countries are re-thinking about it.

The American doctor concluded her first chapter, “Our Own Worst Enemy,” with this bold statement:

“As a doctor, as well as a mother and world citizen, I wish to practise the ultimate form of preventive medicine by ridding the earth of this technology which propagates suffering, disease and death.”

Considering the proliferation of the nuclear technology today and its easy availability to terrorists, the world has to re-think about the continued use of it. Will our decision-makers, doctors, the media and ordinary citizens listen, and read again Nuclear Madness in the context of Kudankulam?

(The writer's email ID is vilanilam.jv@gmail.com)

More In: Open Page | Opinion