"We cannot, must not, ever cover up medical epidemics," says Physician Helen Caldicott, on the phone from her native Australia during a rare break between speaking engagements on nuclear power across the globe.
But a cover-up, after a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, is exactly what's happening, claims the fierce nuclear abolitionist. "It's extremely serious," says Caldicott, who has argued that the meltdown at Fukushima is on par with Chernobyl. "Large parts of Japan are heavily contaminated with radiation. There will be an epidemic of cancers appearing in three to 70 years. And maybe hundreds of thousands of people are destined to develop cancer, if not more. There will be implications for future generations for genetic disease."
On Sept. 25, Caldicott appears at the 14th annual Petaluma Progressive Festival, and her talk focuses on the medical effects and implications of the Fukushima reactor meltdown not only for Japan, but for the United States as well. "There's a fair bit of fallout occurring around the West Coast and Canada, and indeed it's been picked up in Oklahoma, in New England, all over the country," she says. "Particles such as plutonium, cesium, little tiny microscopic pieces from the fuel."
What Caldicott finds most worrisome is the effect of even low levels of radiation on Japanese children, even those that live far beyond the vast evacuation radius around Fukushima. "What they've done is elevated the levels of radiation to which children can be exposed," she explains. "It's absolutely obscene. Children are 20 times more sensitive to radiation than adults. Many of them are destined to develop cancer."
Speaking out against the potential medical hazards of the Fukushima disaster is the latest act in Caldicott's 38-year history of activism in educating the public about the medical hazards of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. A pediatrician by training, the former Harvard Medical School instructor resigned from full-time medicine in 1980. Her subsequent founding of Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND) and numerous other organizations led to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination from Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling.
The author of seven books, including Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, Caldicott describes herself as "very cross" when it comes the continued use of nuclear power and the promises of a president whose favorite move seems to be back-tracking.
"And Obama's about to spend $3 billion building three new nuclear weapons factories, for God's sake. Where's the man's head?" Caldicott asks, her voice rising with anger. She's referring to documents released in July by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that revealed plans to spend $3.5 billion on a new uranium-processing facility in Tennessee, and another $4 billion on a facility for handling plutonium at Los Alamos, New Mexico. All told, the NNSA stockpile plan allows for $175 billion to be spent over the next 20 years for new nuclear weapons factories; testing and simulation facilities; and warhead modernizations, according to Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
"It's obscene. He (Obama) had the gall to stand up in Prague and say he wants to eliminate nuclear weapons," says Caldicott. "I can't tell you how annoyed I am with the man. He's also pro-nuclear power. He's a puppet."
To maintain an engaged and passionate level of activism for nearly four decades takes not only energy, but a nearly crisis-mode sense of urgency, and Caldicott has both. She has to; she's spent half her life crusading against "the elephant in the sitting room that no one talks about. . .that we could all be killed tonight."
For this reason, the doctor continues to travel the world, promoting her message—through speeches, informative websites like www.nuclearfreeplanet.org and books—of a nuclear energy and weapons-free, renewable energy-powered world.
"That takes courage and it takes passion and it takes anger and it takes love and it takes all of the emotion that we have," says Caldicott. "If we love our children enough, if we love our grandchildren enough, even if we love ourselves enough to do it. What are we prepared to sacrifice to save them? Nothing? Just get out there and do it."
Dr. Helen Caldicott speaks at 2pm on Sunday, Sept. 25 at the Petaluma Progressive Festival. Other speakers include Cindy Sheehan, Daniel Ellsberg, Stephen Zunes and more. Walnut Park, Petaluma Blvd. South and D Street, Petaluma. 11:30am&–5pm. Free. 707.763.8134. Full schedule at www.progressivefestival.org.