Nuclear Power is Not the Answer (New York: The New Press, 2006).
If You Love This Planet: A Plan to Heal the Earth (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).
Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1938, Helen Caldicott studied medicine in the adjoining state of South Australia, where she graduated in 1961 from the University of Adelaide Medical School. After working at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, then at the Harvard Medical School, and finally teaching at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, Mass., she resigned to work full time on the prevention of nuclear war and other environmental issues. Already in 1971 she worked with the Australian Trade Unions and others to oppose French aerial nuclear tests. She is a prolific writer, but the books selected here give a representative view of her concerns.
The latest of these works, Nuclear Power…, examines the whole process of providing energy by nuclear fission. Unlike almost all other writers on the subject, and especially the politicians who are mouthpieces for the Nuclear Industry, she describes the different stages, from the mining of the uranium ores through to the decommissioning of nuclear plants and the safe storage of waste, some of which will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years and longer. Examined like this, any claim that nuclear power is an answer to either energy shortage or reducing the output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is seen to be either ignorance or deception.
Caldicott draws on the findings of a number of reputable scientists (whose work is also available on the internet) to show that nuclear power is itself a net producer of greenhouse gases. They are produced not so much in the operation of the final plant as in the mining and processing of the uranium ore, the production and transport of cement, steel and other materials used in constructing the plant, and the handling and transport of the various waste materials produced during the plant’s operation.
One of her powerful chapters is devoted to radiation and disease. She begins by pointing out that ‘miners, workers, and residents in the vicinity of the mining and milling functions, and workers involved in the enrichment process necessary to create nuclear fuel are at risk for exposure to unhealthy amounts of radiation and have increased incidences of cancer and related diseases as a result’. In this chapter she describes in detail the workings of nuclear power plants, the ways in which the workers in them are exposed to radiation, and the operating procedures which release dangerous levels of radiation into the surroundings. In explaining uranium enrichment for use in power plants she also describes how the US government has used the discarded uranium 238 to harden steel in shells and tanks, and in the first Gulf War to irradiate large numbers of people in what was essentially a nuclear war.
She has an excellent description of the different types of power plants, referred to as ‘Generations’. One is left with the impression that those which the industry is currently pushing on the grounds of efficiency and safety are likely to be less safe because of economising measures with concrete shielding and other construction materials.
While Caldicott deals with many of the political problems of nuclear power and also with ‘Renewable Energy: the Answer’, I will mention only her account of the problems of nuclear waste. This includes a description of the geological problems of such sites as Yucca Mountain, often ignored by other writers.
This is not an easy book. It is full of scientific and technical information requiring concentration. The reader could have been helped by a list of abbreviations, and of technical terms and units with brief definitions. The index helps, but insufficiently. The source-notes, however, are excellent. Overall, this is a splendid book which all who want to understand this destructive form of power generation should keep for constant reference.
If You Love This Planet is a much easier book to read, without the scientific terms and statistical concepts of the more recent book. It is also much more political, with considerable space devoted to the damaging effects of various industries and corporations. It reveals its author as much more politically radical than does Nuclear Power. In the latter Caldicott, in exposing the dangers of the 2005 energy bill, does refer to the ‘huge private power monopolies’ which will be allowed to buy up nuclear energy companies. But in If You Love This Planet she indicts the car industry, the oil companies and others for their role in polluting the planet, in threatening the ozone layer, and for contributing to global warming.
As well as indicting the US corporations and, more generally, ‘multinationals’, she mentions the CIA. In one reference to it she speaks of it organizing and financing ‘a covert Contra war against the Nicaraguan people when they attempted to emulate the Cuban policies of excellent education, health care, and social welfare’ (121). In another, she quotes a speech by Washington Post owner Katharine Graham to a group of senior CIA employees in November 1988. Graham asserted that ‘democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows’ (183) – a view with which Caldicott strongly disagrees!
The chapters on ‘The Manufacture of Consent’ and ‘American Media and the Fate of the Earth’ show in detail how people are brainwashed into accepting what is against their interests. She suggests corporate propaganda is the cause of ‘the strange and powerful patriotism and nationalism of the American people’ (150) and sees, and names, American capitalism and ‘the now defunct Communism’ as causing ‘disastrous pollution and wanton neglect of nature’ (14). But strangely she is not so critical of her native Australia, appearing to see the social benefits of the short period of post-WW2 welfare capitalism there as different in kind (but see p.158).
Caldicott’s strong support of trade unions is particularly shown in a section on ‘Strikebreaking and Public Relations’ (157-60). There she writes:
Fundamentally, these corporate campaigns were designed to achieve three objectives: (1) to minimize wage rises and maximize profits; (2) to oppose decent working hours, a minimum wage, occupational health and safety standards, and employee health coverage, and (3) to prevent government regulations from interfering with their activities.
She then goes on to give examples taken from the USA. But here again she has, by comparison, a rosy view of conditions in Australia.
Caldicott is at her best in describing the dangers which humanity faces, whether from nuclear power or from the numerous toxic substances used in contemporary life, or from practices like the felling of forests. But her nostalgic references to her childhood when ‘milk was delivered at five each morning by a milkman driving a horse and cart’ (61) or, in concluding Nuclear Power…, the idea that a personal decision to ‘turn off the lights when you leave the room’ or substitute more ‘sweaters’ for central heating will make a serious difference (183), are a strange contrast to her generally scientific approach.
These books convey important information for environmentalists, as well as showing something of the personality of this remarkable activist, justifying the widespread respect she has gained for her work. The later volume provides the information needed to combat the dangerous threats of nuclear power which governments, under the influence of the Nuclear Industry, are currently embracing. At the same time it points to the various forms of renewable energy which are already viable, if little used, alternatives to nuclear power. Helen Caldicott’s work will long remain an inspiration.
Reviewed by Ronald F. Price
Heidelberg (Victoria), Australia