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Prevention better than cure

It isn't clean or safe and isn't the answer to the world's energy problems, says Helen Caldicott, a leading anti-nuclear campaigner. Interview by Derek Brower

"NUCLEAR power plants are cancer-making factories." It is the kind of statement that has made Helen Caldicott one of the most famous – and controversial – activists in the world, bringing her acclaim from one side of the debate and anger from the other. Her life as a campaigner against nuclear energy is into its 36th year and shows little sign of ending soon. She published one book last year and another is due from the presses this year*.

A paediatrician by training – in 1975 she founded a cystic-fibrosis clinic at Adelaide's children's hospital in her native Australia – her opposition to nuclear is of a piece with her concern for public health. Having moved in 1977 to the US, where she taught at Harvard, she later co-founded Physicians for Social Responsibility, a non-profit advocacy group. That group, and others that have involved her, has helped put Caldicott at the centre of debates about nuclear power, war and the proliferation of weapons. It persuaded Linus Pauling, a Nobel laureate and one of the 20th century's greatest chemists, to nominate her for the Nobel peace prize.

Having left medical practice in 1980 to work as an activist, Caldicott divides her time between Australia and the US, where she heads the Nuclear Policy Research Institute. The regular commute leaves a large carbon footprint – from a woman who has challenged the global nuclear industry on the grounds that it damages the environment – and makes her a little sheepish, she confesses.

Her most recent book, Nuclear Power Is Not The Answer, is an eloquent attack on the notion that nuclear power can solve the great challenges – especially global warming and energy security – facing modern consumer nations (see p14). Power from nuclear fission is not "clean and green", she says, "because large amounts of traditional fossil fuels are required to refine the uranium needed to run nuclear reactors, to construct the concrete reactor buildings, and to transport and store the toxic waste created by the nuclear process".

Furthermore, argues Caldicott, within 10 to 20 years, nuclear power will produce "no net energy because of the massive amounts of fossil fuel that will be necessary to mine and enrich the remaining poor grades of uranium".

Agreeing to differ

Such claims are, of course, disputed by her critics, including members of the nuclear lobby and even other environmentalists. One of the latter, James Lovelock, the author of Gaia theory (which holds that the earth is a self-regulating organism), has become an advocate of nuclear power (if it is "respectful of the environment"). Caldicott says that she "can't understand" Lovelock's support for nuclear. They have "agreed to differ".

It isn't just nuclear's greenhouse-gas emissions record Caldicott challenges. Her recent book also lists numerous harmful gases that the plants emit, the damage to eco-systems around plants and offers new evidence about the damaging legacy of the Three Mile Island accident. The last of these revisits the subject of one of her earlier campaigns, which sought to show how strontium 90, a highly radioactive element that can cause cancer when ingested by humans, landed on grassland in Pennsylvania after the accident. From there it made its way into cows' milk and eventually people.

Such claims are rejected by the US' Environmental Protection Agency. But Caldicott puts little faith in governmental agencies, many of which, she suggests, are influenced by the power of the nuclear industry and its expensive lobbying. If that sounds like paranoia, Caldicott's other criticisms of the nuclear energy industry are just as alarmist – or prophetic, depending on one's point of view.

She once compared the potential fall-out from an explosion of a terrorist bomb at a nuclear plant to the detonation of a nuclear warhead. In her latest book, she writes that such plants are "obvious targets for terrorists. The subsequent meltdown could induce the death of hundreds of thousands of people in heavily populated areas."

Fear-mongering nonsense based on a lack of science, say some of her critics; an important message, say groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her other criticisms draw similarly polarised reactions. But for an industry that has, in recent years, begun winning favour with governments and the publics that vote for them, her voice is a disturbing one. Part of that is because Caldicott frequently talks about one of the nuclear generation industry's taboo subjects – its connection to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Because of Iran's ambitions to go nuclear (either for civilian or nastier reasons) the issue has periodically dominated news headlines. That is right and proper, says Caldicott, because nuclear plants are "essentially atomic bomb factories". A 1 gigawatt plant, she points out, manufactures 500 pounds of plutonium a year – "normally 10 pounds of plutonium is fuel for an atomic bomb". And, she warns, "a crude atomic bomb sufficient to devastate a city could certainly be crafted from reactor-grade plutonium".

And for all the confusion of facts and theories her critics accuse her of, Caldicott levels the same charges in return. The idea that nuclear power can increase a country's energy security by diversifying its sources away from imported oil is "simply wrong". Oil and gasoline fire combustion engines. Nuclear powers the electricity grid. So the two forms of energy are not really in competition, she writes.

That might be true for the US – the country to whose public education Caldicott has devoted most of her own energy – but it isn't necessarily true elsewhere. In developing countries, where much of the growth in nuclear capacity is happening, oil-fired power generation has significant market share and making a switch would do wonders for air quality – and, arguably, their bottom line. Furthermore, in Europe, where nuclear is back on the agenda, worries about energy security are mainly related to gas imports, much of which is used for electricity that could be generated by nuclear instead.

Meanwhile, says Caldicott, every billion dollars spent on nuclear by governments keen to subsidise is another billion dollars "stolen" from the renewables sector. "A nuclear reactor is just a very sophisticated and dangerous way to boil water – analogous to cutting a pound of butter with a chain saw." Much simpler would be to spend money on clean energy, she argues. Governments just need to "shift the subsidies provided to the nuclear industry to alternative and renewable electricity generation". That remains unlikely as long as renewables are unable to prove they can provide the volume of energy the world needs at the price it wants to pay.

But in any case, it is the arguments about public health and safety that seem to drive Caldicott. "Preventative medicine is the best medicine there is." Her campaigning has not come at the expense of her career as a physician, says Caldicott, but because of it.

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