Geoffrey Sea’s Nuclear Bulletin #21 – The “Radiation” Debate

6 iv 2011–While a real calamity unfolds in Japan, Western attention is being unconscionably diverted to a “debate” about low-level radiation effects, a debate that corresponds to no real scientific dispute, but instead relates only to the peculiar politics of the so-called “anti-nuclear” movement.

To be clear, the important consequences of Fukushima will not relate to “low-level” radiation. Stories are already appearing about acute radiation sickness and other short-term effects appearing and anticipated in the hundreds of workers and soldiers exposed to HIGH doses at and near the reactor site.  Waylaying the conversation to personal agendas about whether very low levels of radiation do or do not cause health effects, while disaster management is ongoing, is obscene. I could digress to talk about the lack of focus in modern discourse, but that might undermine my own point. People are now suffering and dying from high-dose radiation, and other consequences of the earthquake and tsunami. Focus, people, focus.

Last week, the show Democracy Now! aired a “debate” between the so-called anti-nuclear crusader (appropriate term) Helen Caldicott, and the former so-called anti-nuclear activist turned pro-nuclear apologist George Monbiot.  Monbiot has now published a virulent attack on Caldicott in the Guardian, The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian.  Monbiot’s piece is mostly correct (see below) and even more totally beside the point, because Helen Caldicott has not, does not, and will not ever represent any strain of serious thought on any subject. It’s high time that this becomes universally recognized.

As disclosure that serves as essential background, thirty-three years ago, I was hired to work as the national staff person for the new organization, Physicians for Social Responsibility, of which Helen Caldicott then served as board president. I was merely a junior at Harvard College, but one of my responsibilities, assigned by the executive director and the board, was to review Caldicott’s speech texts for accuracy.

That job was both easy and impossible, because as far as accuracy was concerned, there was none in anything penned by Dr. Caldicott. She was ultimately removed by the PSR board for this very problem, as she also was by the board of the next organization she founded — Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament.

To give one representative example, Helen was giving a regular stump speech about the consequences of nuclear war to physicians at hospitals and medical schools, which contained the line (verbatim):
“After a nuclear war, the earth will be populated by bands of roving mutant humanoids.”

There was no use asking Helen for a source of that non-medical opinion — obviously she had watched some late-night sci-fi B movie. More than a few times I edited that line out from Caldicott’s speech texts, but every time she would reinsert the line when giving her talk.

This led to growing confrontations within the PSR organization, fed by a whistleblower problem. Helen’s personal secretary came to me confidentially one day (it now can be revealed) to report that Caldicott’s then-recent book Nuclear Madness had actually been authored by the secretary, not by Helen, and without credit or attribution. The charge was valid. I was also given, by a whistleblower, a copy of instructions, in Helen’s handwriting, on how to deliver the “anti-nuclear” message by appealing to gut-level emotions, not to facts. Often, Caldicott would say openly that the only way to stop “nuclear madness” was to make men feel queasy “in their testicles”. Her political naivete was astounding, as when she arrived at a large demonstration in Washington D.C. in a staff car provided by the Soviet embassy.

Between 1978 and 1981, PSR board members and staff decided to deal with this problem internally, mostly out of a hope that Helen Caldicott could be reasoned with and persuaded to stop her tirades of nonsense. This decision I personally regret, because Helen has never stopped. At WAND she persistently advocated that nuclear weapons could be eliminated by having women refuse to sleep with men until it happened — a strategy that brought quizzical reactions from feminist audiences that were largely lesbian. Throughout the 1980s, it was Helen Caldicott who trumpeted the false claims of disease clusters resulting from Three Mile Island, which not only diverted attention away from real problems revealed by the accident, but also led to disastrous litigation on behalf of alleged victims who could prove no harm in court.

In the 1990s, leading up to and including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Caldicott almost single-handedly brought the Ba’ath Party lie about depleted uranium to American shores. In actual fact, cancer clusters in and near Basra had been caused by the demolition of depots containing Iraqi chemical weapons during the 1991 Gulf War. Obviously unwilling to disclose that fact, Saddam Hussein and his party concocted the idea that the cancers were caused by American depleted uranium weapons left scattered in the desert. This made no sense whatsoever, yet Caldicott turned it into yet another cause celebre, and she started the allegation that the United States was waging a “nuclear war” in Iraq.  This calumny not only made anti-war activists in the West look like imbeciles, it also fed recruitment efforts by terrorist groups in the Middle East, as Islamic militant groups were only too happy to repeat the allegation made by an Australian-American physician.

So now Helen Caldicott is on to Fukushima, and George Monbiot is on to Helen Caldicott. Monbiot is correct in virtually all of his criticisms of Caldicott, but he focuses on her weaknesses because he has so little to say in defense of his own position. Yes, Caldicott always stresses that low-level radiation causes birth defects, because she has learned, like a crass televangelist, that the birth-defect pitch gets people to open their checkbooks. An Arab woman I saw protesting in New York City in 2003 carried posters of photos of Iraqi children with birth defects, allegedly caused by depleted uranium, because that woman had listened to Helen Caldicott. (It can be stated with certainty that none of those birth defects were caused by depleted uranium, which has a half-life of about 4 billion years.)

Monbiot is absolutely right to trash that argument, because, contrary to everything you’ve heard from the Caldicott contingent, low-level radiation does NOT cause birth defects, and gross birth defects are almost never caused by radiation exposure of the parents prior to conception. The birth defects seen following Hiroshima and Nagasaki were caused by direct exposure of fetuses to HIGH doses of radiation in utero. Since pregnant women are not sloshing through the flooded trenches at Fukushima, this is not an issue of the current catastrophe.

Genetic illnesses, another of Caldicott’s favorite topics, also do not manifest from low-level radiation exposure in the way that Caldicott has often claimed. Again, we learned from long-term follow-up of the A-Bomb survivors, as well as from fruit fly studies, that practically no genetic illnesses appear in the first generation. It takes multiple generations for such effects to appear, meaning, for humans, roughly forty years or more. So while genetic effects may be predicted in the abstract, you’ll never be able to point to disease cases in downwind populations and pin those cases on Fukushima.  That argument is long-term and statistical, as unfortunate as that may be for Helen Caldicott’s bank account.

The real dilemmas we will face at Fukushima – and this is where Monbiot dissembles – concern the populations within a fifty-mile radius. These include evacuations that will become permanent, resulting homelessness, devastation of the agricultural economy because of bans on area food, heavy reliance of the Japanese diet on seafood, social stigma of the highly exposed survivors who will constitute a new class of hibakusha, and personal choices against having children, the latter problem magnified by the Caldicott propaganda.

Smarten up, people. The funding vultures who exploit mass tragedies for their own aggrandizement are circling. Change the channel, pass by the books, pay attention to the legitimate experts in the field. And keep your attention focused on the real victims in Japan. The discernable effects of Fukushima will be concentrated within a fifty-mile radius of Fukushima, and that’s bad enough. The discussion about distant downwind effects is all distraction.

The “anti-nuclear” contingent, led by Dr. Caldicott, has been the best friend that the nuclear industry ever had. We made a mistake not going public about the problem in 1979. It needs to be aired now, so that we’re not caught in the claws of the very same inanity yet another time around. Lies have victims too.

Immediately after the Caldicott-Monbiot debate on Democracy Now! I was invited to appear on that show. I declined. I told Amy Goodman the same thing I will say publicly here: I won’t lend my credibility to any outlet that provides a platform for willful distortion and distraction. Five years after the last time that Helen Caldicott appears on her show, Amy is welcome to call me.

–Geoffrey Sea

Geoffrey Sea holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Science from Harvard. He did graduate work in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and in radiological health physics at San Jose State University. He is co-founder of Southern Ohio Neighbors Group, which successfully defeated plans for the centralized storage of spent nuclear fuel at Piketon, Ohio. He has published in the American Scholar, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and many newspapers. He can be contacted via email at

4 Replies to “Geoffrey Sea’s Nuclear Bulletin #21 – The “Radiation” Debate”

  1. So, since “_gross_ birth defects are _almost_ never caused by radiation exposure of the parents prior to conception”. should we consider _minor_ birth defects to be more acceptable then?

    Also, “we learned from long-term follow-up of the A-Bomb survivors, as well as from fruit fly studies, that practically no genetic illnesses appear in the first generation. It takes multiple generations for such effects to appear, meaning, for humans, roughly forty years or more. So while genetic effects may be predicted in the abstract, you’ll never be able to point to disease cases in downwind populations and pin those cases on Fukushima.”

    If I understand correctly this means that scientific studies have demonstrated that genetic illnesses in _do_ fact appear after a few generations. Now, even if we weren’t able to pin *individual* cases on Fukushima, surely this still poses a public health problem, doesn’t it?

    Anyway, in my opinion, the author of this article stresses too much the problem or birth defects and genetic illnesses in the future generations, ignoring completely the inevitable rise of cancer cases (same applies to his treatment of Uranium Weapons). So, while I cannot question his criticism of Dr Caldicott, which may be entirely correct, I think this article too is full of ‘wilful distortion and distraction’.

  2. “Gross birth defects” is a medical category referring to such deformities as missing limbs, digits, organ displacement, etc. To the extent that a birth defect might be minor it is usually not a health issue, such as the “birth marks” we all carry. The point is that these defects are caused by in utero exposure, and therefore were an issue at Hiroshima, but are not a big issue at Fukushima, since pregnant women had sufficient time to clear the high-dose area and avoid exposure.

    My post was directed at the diversionary claims made by Helen Caldicott. She focusses on birth defects and genetic illness, not cancer, because she wants to pull emotional strings, like anti-abortion activists who wave photos of aborted fetuses. This is not science.

    The genetic illness question is interesting because the Caldicott propaganda worsens the problem. Genetic illnesses take generations to appear because most are caused by double-recessive mutations or similar problems inherited from both parents. The Caldicott scare-mongering increases the social castigation of exposed populations, which we saw following Hiroshima. That leads to more in-breeding among exposed groups and that increases the genetic disease rate.

    But in any case, the genetic disease issue is a small one relative to other problems, especially where high doses are involved as at Fukushima. And to the extent it is a concern, events like Fukushima are insignificant compared to factors like depletion of the ozone layer, which increases radiation dose worldwide.

    Thus the Caldicott propaganda diverts from the important health issues in every way.

  3. If you really want to correct the record, then you should accept DemocracyNow’s invitation and your rebut Caldecot’s position in detail.

    “Taking your ball and going home” isn’t a mature or productive response, IMHO.

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