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“Prescription for Survival”: A Debate on the Future of Nuclear Energy Between Anti-Coal Advocate George Monbiot and Anti-Nuclear Activist Dr. Helen Caldicott

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The crisis in Japan has refueled the rigorous global debate about the viability of nuclear power. Japan remains in a “state of maximum alert” as the experts scramble to contain radiation that is leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Nuclear energy remains a controversial topic in climate change discourse, as environmental activists argue how to best reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere—often the debate pits one non-renewable energy against another as renewable energy technology and research remains underfunded. Democracy Now! hosts a debate today about the future of nuclear energy between British journalist George Monbiot and Dr. Helen Caldicott. Monbiot has written extensively about the environmental and health dangers caused by burning coal for energy, and despite the Fukushima catastrophe, stands behind nuclear power. Caldicott is a world-renowned anti-nuclear advocate who has spent decades warning of the medical hazards posed by nuclear technologies, and while agreeing about the dangers of burning coal, insists the best option is to ban nuclear power. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Tuesday his government is in a “state of maximum alert” over the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

High radiation levels continue to delay efforts to fix the plant’s cooling systems, and experts are now debating whether to cover its reactor buildings with a special material in order to try and stop the spread of radioactive substances. Radioactive water is seeping into the sea, and highly radioactive liquid has been found inside and outside several reactor buildings. Small amounts of plutonium have also been detected in soil at the plant.

The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research has released data showing the radiation leak in Japan is far worse than the one at Three Mile Island in 1979. Researchers estimate the Japanese plant has released 160,000 times as much radioactive iodine-131 as the Three Mile Island accident. The researchers said the radiation leak in Chernobyl was 10 times larger than the leak so far in Japan.

On Tuesday, Peter Lyons, the head of the U.S. Energy Department’s nuclear program, said the discovery of plutonium in the soil near Japan’s damaged nuclear reactors should not be a major surprise.

PETER LYONS: All operating reactors, whether they start with any plutonium in the fuel or not, build up plutonium in the course of operation. So, finding plutonium that was derived from either the operating reactors or the spent fuel pools would not be regarded as a major surprise. Certainly, it would be a concern if it were in significant levels. At least anything I’ve seen was that it’s not significant at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Peter Lyons, head of the U.S. Energy Department’s nuclear program, speaking Tuesday at a hearing for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The hearing comes as the U.S. regulator embarks on a safety review of the nation’s 104 nuclear plants in the wake of the Japanese accident, the worst the world has seen in a quarter of a century. The Obama administration says it’s trying to determine how to boost energy production without increasing global warming.

To discuss this issue, we’re joined by British journalist George Monbiot in London. He is an author, columnist with The Guardian of London. He has written in favor of nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster. And we’re joined by Helen Caldicott, world-renowned anti-nuclear advocate, author and pediatrician, co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, has spent decades warning of the medical hazards of nuclear technologies.

George Monbiot, why don’t you begin? Why doesn’t what is happening now in Fukushima concern you when it comes to nuclear power worldwide?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, obviously, what happened — what’s happening in Fukushima concerns me a lot about the area surrounding Fukushima. It’s a horrible, dangerous, extremely traumatic series of events that we are seeing there.

But I’m very worried that the global response to what’s happening in Fukushima will be to shut down nuclear power stations around the world and to cancel future nuclear power stations, and that what will happen is that they will be replaced by coal. Now, coal is hundreds of times more dangerous than nuclear power, not just because of climate change, though, of course, climate change is a big one, but also because of industrial accidents and because of the impacts of pollution on local people. If we just look at industrial accidents alone, these massively outweigh both the fatalities and the injuries caused by any nuclear accident we’ve ever seen. In China alone, last year, 2,300 people were killed in industrial accidents to do with coal mining; purely by coal mining accidents, 2,300 killed. That’s six people a day. That means that in one week, the official death toll from coal in China is greater than the official death toll from Chernobyl in 25 years. And that’s to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of people contracting really unpleasant lung diseases, which will cause them a very slow and painful and terrible death.

So, what I’m calling for here is not complacency. I think it’s absolutely appropriate to be very concerned, indeed, about what’s happening in Fukushima. But I’m calling for perspective, and I’m saying that we must not replace a bad technology with a much, much worse one, because, unfortunately, that is what’s likely to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Caldicott, your reaction? Talk about where Japan is right now with its nuclear reactors, what partial meltdown means, and what you think this means for the future for nuclear power in the world.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, Amy, The Guardian yesterday reported that Unit No. 2 had actually melted down. The fuel had melted through the reactor vessel onto the concrete floor below. That is a problem because the zirconium in the fuel reacts with the concrete, and it could form a huge hydrogen bubble like happened at Three Mile Island. There could be a huge hydrogen explosion, which would rupture the containment vessel, and out of Unit 2 would come huge plumes of radiation, which, if the wind is blowing towards the south, could devastate much of Japan forever, or it could be blown across the Pacific towards the American — North American continent and around the globe, indeed, and pollute the whole of the northern hemisphere.

And this — and, of course, if there is such an explosion, it means that the workers who are trying to stabilize the cooling pools, one of which has been burning — or several have been burning — and the others reactors, which are in a very precarious state, they’ll have to evacuate the plant. I mean, they can’t work there anymore. And then God knows what will happen. This is the most extreme situation in nuclear power. I could never have imagined this, Amy, although I have thought a lot about meltdowns, and Chernobyl, in particular.

AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, your response? Do you agree with Helen Caldicott’s assessment?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, I agree that it’s a very parlous situation indeed. It does look as if it’s going to melt through the reactor floor, effectively, and onto the concrete, in which case exactly the scenario she’s talking about could take place.

I would disagree, though, that it will devastate a large part of Japan forever, which I think was a term that she used. I think that’s an overstatement of the impacts of the radiation. There’s no question that it will cause mass evacuation. It may cause health effects for some people. But we’ve got to be very careful about not doing what, say, the climate change deniers do when they say that there’s no danger from climate change: cherry-picking studies, plucking out work which is very much against the scientific consensus. When it comes to low-level radiation, unfortunately, environmentalists have been responsible for quite a similar approach by making what appear to be unjustifiable and excessive claims for the impact of that radiation. That is not in any way to minimize what is — what could well happen as a result of the events in Fukushima, but what it does say is we have to use the best possible science to work out what the likely effects are to be and not engage in what could be far more devastating to the lives of people in Japan: a wild overreaction in terms of the response in which we ask the Japanese people to engage.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Our guests are George Monbiot of The Guardian and Helen Caldicott, world-renowned nuclear — anti-nuclear advocate, co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility. After we continue this debate, we will go to Haiti to talk about the crisis there. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: After the nuclear disaster in Japan, President Obama, in an interview with CBS, reiterated his commitment to nuclear power.

We thought we could go to that SOT, but President Obama is renewing the whole nuclear power debate by providing the loan guarantees that would allow for new plants to be built for the first time in more than 30 years. Helen Caldicott, are you concerned about this?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Oh, Amy, the whole thing’s nuclear madness, which is what I called my first book that I wrote in 1978. A new report from the New York Academy of Sciences has just translated 5,000 papers from Russian into English. It’s the most devastating report I’ve ever seen. Up to a million people have already died from Chernobyl, and people will continue to die from cancer for virtually the rest of time. What we should know is that a millionth of a gram of plutonium, or less, can induce cancer, or will induce cancer. Each reactor has 250 kilos, or 500 pounds, of plutonium in it. You know, there’s enough plutonium in these reactors to kill everyone on earth.

Now, what George doesn’t understand — and, George, I really appreciate your writing, and I understand your concern about global warming. You don’t understand internal emitters. I was commissioned to write an article for the New England Journal of Medicine about the dangers of nuclear power. I spent a year researching it. You’ve bought the propaganda from the nuclear industry. They say it’s low-level radiation. That’s absolute rubbish. If you inhale a millionth of a gram of plutonium, the surrounding cells receive a very, very high dose. Most die within that area, because it’s an alpha emitter. The cells on the periphery remain viable. They mutate, and the regulatory genes are damaged. Years later, that person develops cancer. Now, that’s true for radioactive iodine, that goes to the thyroid; cesium-137, that goes to the brain and muscles; strontium-90 goes to bone, causing bone cancer and leukemia. It’s imperative, George, because you’re highly intelligent and a very important commentator, that you understand internal emitters and radiation, and it’s not low level to the cells that are exposed. Radiobiology is imperative to understand these days. I do suggest, humbly, that if you read my book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer, which I think I’ve tried to send you once, you’ll learn about that.

GEORGE MONBIOT: I do have a copy, yeah.

HELEN CALDICOTT: And I totally agree, global warming is a terrible, terrible catastrophe. However, I commissioned a study, done by Arjun Makhijani from IEER about three, four years ago, called “Carbon-Free [and] Nuclear-Free.” The truth is, George, that there’s enough renewable technology now, right now, which is relatively cheap, to supply the whole of the U.S.'s needs by 2040 without any carbon and any nuclear. We just need to have the politicians to get out of the pockets of the nuclear companies, the coal companies, the oil companies, and start funding renewable energy. Why isn't there a solar panel on every single house in America, solar hot water systems, windmills everywhere? You know it would increase the GDP and employ hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world. This is the way to go. That’s the prescription for survival.

Nuclear power, George, creates massive quantities of radioactive waste. There is no way to put it on earth that’s safe. As it leaks into the water over time, it will bioconcentrate in the food chains, in the breast milk, in the fetuses, that are thousands of times more radiosensitive than adults. One x-ray to the pregnant abdomen doubles the incidence of leukemia in the child. And over time, nuclear waste will induce epidemics of cancer, leukemia and genetic disease, and random compulsory genetic engineering. And we’re not the only species with genes, of course. It’s plants and animals. So, this is an absolute catastrophe, the likes of which the world has never seen before.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s get George Monbiot’s response.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Yes, well, thank you, Helen, and thank you for all the work you’ve done over the years, which I think has made a fantastic contribution. But what you’re saying about the impacts of radiation just does not seem to square with the observed cancer rates amongst the populations who have been exposed —

HELEN CALDICOTT: That’s not right.

GEORGE MONBIOT: — to high levels of radiation.

HELEN CALDICOTT: George, that’s not right. George, George —

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, can I just give you a —

HELEN CALDICOTT: That’s not right. You need to read the literature.

AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, I have been reading the literature. I have been reading the literature, and there’s a very extensive literature —

HELEN CALDICOTT: The medical literature?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Some of the medical literature.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Have you read the New York Academy of Sciences report?

GEORGE MONBIOT: I haven’t read the whole report; I’ve read part of it. But can I just say that —

HELEN CALDICOTT: You must read the whole report.

GEORGE MONBIOT: You know, I — sorry, Helen, would you please let me finish what I’m trying to say?


GEORGE MONBIOT: When I’ve been dealing with climate change over the past 20 years or so, I learned very quickly that you have to effectively go with the scientific consensus rather than with a few outlier papers, because to choose those outlier papers over the scientific consensus is effectively to cherry-pick or to data mine, and to get what has turns out to be a misleading view. That’s certainly been my experience with climate change.

Now, when it comes to radiation —

HELEN CALDICOTT: I agree. I agree.

GEORGE MONBIOT: —- I think we’re in danger, possibly, of falling into a similar trap to the trap that climate change deniers have fallen into with their cherry-picking of the science there. For instance, I don’t think you could dismiss the U.N. Scientific Committee as being part of the nuclear industry. I don’t think you can dismiss the very large amount of data -—

HELEN CALDICOTT: Yes, I could. Yes, I could.

GEORGE MONBIOT: — on the — sorry, you’re saying you would dismiss the U.N. Scientific Committee as being part of the nuclear industry?

HELEN CALDICOTT: I could, yes. Let me tell you, George —

GEORGE MONBIOT: Wow. OK, well, I’m afraid that it seems to me that —

HELEN CALDICOTT: — that the International Atomic Energy Agency — well, I’ll tell you why in a minute.

GEORGE MONBIOT: No, the U.N. Scientific Committee is what I’m talking about. But, I mean, if that is the case, then —


GEORGE MONBIOT: —- it worries me. The U.N. Scientific Committee on Atomic Radiation. It worries me, if you really do lump them in there, that we’re getting into the same sort of conspiratorial thinking that you have with climate change denial -—


GEORGE MONBIOT: — whereby anyone who doesn’t go along with the line of the climate change deniers, that carbon dioxide is not connected with climate change, for example, is in the hands of the carbon trading industry or something like that.

Now, you know, there is a very large body of evidence from Chernobyl, from many other nuclear incidents, from people’s exposure to elevated levels of background radiation, whether it’s radon gas coming from granite masses, whether it’s higher solar radiation because of where they live, and what we do not see is a clear relationship between those lower levels of radiation that you predict and the incidence of cancers, let alone the higher incidence of death. It’s just it’s only there in very particular cases, generally with extremely high exposures of radiation, or in specific cases like, for instance, the combination of radon exposure and smoking, which raises the incidence of lung cancer among smokers from 10 percent to 16 percent. But the radon exposure seems to have almost no impact on the level of cancers among the rest of the population. So, I just think, you know, we’ve got to be very, very careful —

HELEN CALDICOTT: George, this is wrong, George.

GEORGE MONBIOT: — about which science we trust and which we do not.

HELEN CALDICOTT: George, you must —

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Caldicott?

HELEN CALDICOTT: George, you must listen to me. I’m a pediatrician. I’m a physician, highly trained. I was on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. My specialty is cystic fibrosis, the most common genetic disease of childhood. I actually — and I’m not boasting, but I’m a very good doctor; you know, I came second in my year of medicine. I don’t say things that are inaccurate. Otherwise, I would be de-registered. I mean, doctors can’t lie.

George, there’s a huge literature on internal emitters and radiation. The New York Academy of Sciences, this report on Chernobyl is absolutely devastating. But there are now 2,600 genetic diseases described. I first learned about radiation by learning about the experiments with Drosophila fruit fly by Muller when I did first-year medicine in '56. You can produce a gene for a crooked wing that's passed on generation to generation. We will not live to see the abnormalities created by radiation from our activities now because, you know, we’ll all be dead by the time we have 20 or more generations. But it’s imperative that people understand that internal emitters cause cancer, but the incubation time for cancer is any time from two to 60 years.

George, the International Atomic Energy Agency has an unholy alliance with the WHO, World Health Organization, which says WHO cannot examine any accident related to nuclear power, etc., without the permission of the IAEA. And indeed, it didn’t examine Chernobyl. Forty percent of the European land mass is still radioactive, George. Turkish food is extremely radioactive. And we have to wait to see the cancers arising and do epidemiological studies, many of which have been done to exposed populations. George, there is no debate about this. There is no debate. I speak to doctors all the time in medical schools, in hospitals, grand rounds. We all understand this. There is no debate in the medical community.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask George Monbiot, the —

HELEN CALDICOTT: Only at the nuclear level.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me — let me ask George Monbiot — the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl is three weeks away. Scientists have documented extreme levels of radiation still there, miles and miles of dead trees, mutated birds, insects, leukemia deaths of children. Is this your understanding?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Oh, miles and miles of dead trees, I don’t believe that there’s — that’s an effect of Chernobyl. It might well be an effect of acid rain in the area, but I haven’t seen any scientific evidence suggesting miles and miles of dead trees caused by the Chernobyl erosion, or of widespread impacts amongst wildlife.

Now, as for the leukemia incidence, yes, unquestion— well, thyroid cancer, actually, was the big one amongst children. There was some elevated incidence of leukemia amongst particularly a few of the workers at Chernobyl, but the broader impact was of thyroid cancer. And that could have been massively reduced, that incidence, A, by giving iodine pills to children, and B, by forbidding them, for a period of time, from drinking the contaminated milk. Because the authorities were so appallingly lax and didn’t do any of the — either of those basic precautions, we see a much higher rate of thyroid cancer amongst children than there ever should have been.

Now, on these questions that Helen raises, I mean, if she’s honestly saying that the World Health Organization is now part of the conspiracy and the cover-up, as well, then the mind boggles.


GEORGE MONBIOT: You know, where does this end?

HELEN CALDICOTT: The mind does boggle.

GEORGE MONBIOT: If them and the U.N. Scientific Committee and the IAEA and — I mean, who else is involved in this conspiracy? We need to know.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Helen Caldicott?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, yes, we do. It’s the IAEA which promotes nuclear power —- sorry, Amy. It’s the IAEA that promotes nuclear power, right, but says you mustn’t build bombs from your reactor. And that negotiation took place, God, several decades, quite a lot of decades, ago. And the WHO just does nothing -—

GEORGE MONBIOT: And they have conspired to cover up —

HELEN CALDICOTT: — it has not examined the results —- yes. This is the biggest -—

GEORGE MONBIOT: They have conspired to cover up the incidence of cancer caused by radiation?

HELEN CALDICOTT: — medical conspiracy and cover-up in the history of medicine, George. Yes.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Right, so, WHO, IAEA, the U.N. Scientific Committee —


GEORGE MONBIOT: — on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, all of them are part of the cover-up.

HELEN CALDICOTT: I don’t know about the U.N. Scientific Committee.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, that’s a huge — I mean, you don’t know about it?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, certainly the IAEA and the WHO.

GEORGE MONBIOT: I mean, this is — the U.N. Scientific Committee is the major repository of the science on this issue. You don’t know about it?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, yeah, no, I’ve read about it, but the main thing is that the WHO was prevented or did not examine the results from Chernobyl, and it’s ongoing and will be for generations and generations, George.

GEORGE MONBIOT: But the United Nations did. The United Nations —

HELEN CALDICOTT: And soil, 40 percent of the soil in Europe is contaminated.

GEORGE MONBIOT: The United Nations Committee did examine Chernobyl. And they have said —


GEORGE MONBIOT: — that so far the death toll from Chernobyl amongst both workers and local people is 43. Am I —- sorry, are you saying you didn’t know that they had examined this -—

HELEN CALDICOTT: That’s a lie, George. That’s a lie.

GEORGE MONBIOT: — and you aren’t aware of their report?

HELEN CALDICOTT: That’s a lie.

GEORGE MONBIOT: What’s a lie?


GEORGE MONBIOT: That they examined this —


GEORGE MONBIOT: — and they wrote a report?

HELEN CALDICOTT: How dare they say that?

AMY GOODMAN: On that —

HELEN CALDICOTT: How dare they say that?

GEORGE MONBIOT: But are you aware — are you aware of the report?

HELEN CALDICOTT: This is a total cover-up. Yes, I am.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to wrap, with 10 seconds of each —


AMY GOODMAN: In this wake of what has happened in Japan and on this anniversary of Chernobyl, three weeks away, I give you each 15 seconds to express your concern, as we wrap up this debate, beginning with George Monbiot.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, we have to use the best available science, not cherry-pick our sources, and we have to keep some perspective on this, so that we don’t see a massive rush to coal, as governments get out of nuclear as a result of what’s happened in Japan.

AMY GOODMAN: And Helen Caldicott, 15 seconds.

HELEN CALDICOTT: George, I totally agree with you about coal. I think it’s a deadly substance, and we must stop burning, à la James Hansen. But we must not go from the global warming frying pan into the nuclear fire, George. This is an obscene technology. They’ve known about it since the Manhattan Project. Seaborg, who discovered plutonium, said it’s the most dangerous substance on earth. Each reactor has 500 pounds of plutonium, lasts for half-a-million years, causing cancer after cancer.

AMY GOODMAN: We leave it there, and I thank you both for being with us.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Have you ever tried to help a child dying of leukemia, George? It’s beyond comprehension.

AMY GOODMAN: We will leave it there. Helen Caldicott, thank you so much for being with us from Boston, world-renowned anti-nuclear advocate, author and pediatrician, co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility. And George Monbiot, speaking to us from Britain, a reporter, correspondent, columnist for The Guardian of London.

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