Helen Caldicott


As world attention is focused on the severely damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan it become apparent how little is known about the radioactive substances being released and their impacts on life.

Helen Caldicott says that 200 new elements are made inside a nuclear reactor, all intensely radioactive, some lasting seconds, some 17 million years. Many of them are carcinogenic, some are mutagenic. In this speech she explains how radiation induces cancers and mutations, and describes the effects of the four most significant isotopes present in nuclear power plants: radioactive iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-90, and plutonium-239.


This is an extremely timely excerpt of a one hour lecture given in 2009. Helen Caldicott was then campaigning against the pro-nuclear power stance of the Obama administration. She spoke to create awareness of the terrible danger from nuclear reactors and demanded that no new plants be built and the existing one's be closed.


For almost 40 years the Australian physician Dr. Helen Caldicott has campaigned against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. In 1971 she led her first successful antinuclear campaign that stopped French atmospheric testing in the Pacific. She came to the US in 1977 and worked and taught at Harvard Medical School and Boston's Children's Hospital. Physicians for Social Responsibility, the organization that she founded, received a Nobel Peace Prize.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Thank you… What I'm going to do--briefly, I guess--is walk you through the whole nuclear fuel cycle: how radiation causes cancer, how it causes genetic disease and abnormalities and how nuclear reactors are bomb factories. And that's why we're terribly worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. So this country's going hell-for-leather to sell nuclear power plants to everyone. And what they're doing is selling them bomb factories.

The fact is that material made in nuclear power plants last for half a million years, and that's the bomb-grade material: plutonium. Anyway, so with that introduction, I'm going to walk you through, as a doctor--so this is a medical lecture, and it'll probably be a bit boring, but none of you are to go to sleep, and if you do, I'll wake you up. OK? With a shock!

OK, so uranium is the raw material for both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. I come from Australia, where 40% of the world's richest uranium resides. And we are mining it like hell. Uranium decays to a series of daughter products -- they're called daughters, not sons, incidentally -- one of them is radium. Radium is an alpha emitter and I'll get into that soon, but it's very carcinogenic. Radium is a calcium analog and it goes to bones where it irradiates a few cells and what is made in the bone marrow is the white and red blood cells. And I'll explain in a little while how radiation induces cancer.

Another daughter product is radon, which is a gas and an alpha-emitter, and, if inhaled into the lung, it lodges in a terminal bronchus; it irradiates just a very small volume of cells and can cause cancer such that 30%-50% of men who have mined uranium are now dying of lung cancer. Uranium itself has two isotopes -- 235 and 238 -- this is present in only 0.7% and must be enriched to 3% for use in nuclear power. If you enrich it to greater than 50%, you've got bombs. Uranium 238 is left behind -- it's called depleted uranium, but it's not depleted of radiation, it's depleted of uranium 235. But it sounds nice, you know -- depleted, well it can't be too bad. It's being used by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan as weapons. This is a war crime beyond belief because the half-life of uranium 238 is 4.5 billion years.

This material -- most of it -- is turned into aerosolized particles which blow in the sandstorms, which bioconcentrate in the milk, get into the water, and the children play in these damaged tanks. America's so worried about this stuff that in the first invasion, there was a tank damaged by uranium 238 and the Kuwaitis demanded that America take that tank home and they encased it in concrete and buried it -- I think in Savannah River somewhere. But these tanks are just lying all over the place in Iraq and the kids get in them and play, and it's ongoing. And America's exporting these weapons.

OK, so let's move on. Now I'm going to tell you how radiation damages cells and what that's all about. We learned this in medical school -- first year--when I was 17 – in Adelaide. So I've always known it and all doctors do know it. OK, so your body's made of trillions of cells and in each cell there's a nucleus and in each nucleus there are 46 chromosomes, and arranged on the chromosomes are the genes. In each cell is a pair of genes called the regulatory genes, which control the rate of cell division. This is sort of simple -- simplistic -- genetics, because things are more complex now, but they're made of DNA molecules.

Now, there are five forms of radiation.

X-rays -- you do not become radioactive, but in that instant your cell may be mutated to later cause cancer.  What you need to know is radiation is cumulative; every dose you receive adds to your risk of getting cancer. Never have your teeth x-rayed every year, so the dentists make money! Don't ever have an x-ray unless it's absolutely indicated. One x-ray to the pregnant woman’s abdomen doubles the risk of leukemia in the offspring. That's why they say to women, When was your last period? So that they don't give a woman an x-ray in the second half of the menstrual cycle, because she may have conceived at that time. So this is non-particulate.

Gamma radiation is given off by materials in nuclear power plants and uranium and the like, and it's just like x-rays, it does the same thing.

Alpha particles are actually particulate emitted from an unstable atom composed of two protons and two neutrons. This is a heavy mass, it doesn't travel far in the body -- a small volume of cells -- but if it hits a cell, it's going to damage the DNA molecule.

Beta radiation is an electron-emitter that travels further – it’s light. And then there are neutrons.

And neutrons go through everything: cement, concrete, steel, everything, and they travel miles.

There's this guy called Cohen, who developed the neutron bomb. And it was the capitalistic bomb, because it actually didn't destroy the buildings, it just irradiated people with such a high flux of neutrons, their brains swelled up and they developed acute encephalopathic syndrome and died within several days. The buildings were left standing because it was a low-blast nuclear weapon, so it didn't blast the buildings to Kingdom Come, but they became radioactive. Because if anything's exposed to neutrons -- iron and cobalt and various elements become radioactive. They're called activation products.  And that all happens in a nuclear power plant to all the materials that are used to make the reactor.

Now how does this sort of radiation damage the genes? Well, you know, boom! I got it! In a random way, a gene can be hit by any of these sorts of radiation. The cell will either die or remain viable but the DNA molecule becomes damaged. And the cell will sit any time from five to 60 years, which is called the latent period of carcinogenesis or the incubation time for cancer. You don't know you've been damaged, and when you get the lump in your breast or you cough up some blood, you don't know what caused it. The lump in the breast doesn't wear a little flag sign that says "I was made by some Strontium-90 you ate in a piece of chocolate made by Hershey's some 20 years ago.  Why Hershey's? Because it's 13 miles from Three Mile Island, the richest dairy area in the country, where all cows go to produce the milk. The milk after TMI was so radioactive with radioactive Iodine that Hershey's powdered the milk for six weeks, until the iodine decayed away to nothing. But many other elements got out. So we don't know how many, because the radiation monitors went off-scale within the first few minutes. So no one knows how much radiation got out, and it's a huge cover-up there.

OK, so one day, instead of a cell dividing--after the regulatory genes have been damaged--by mitosis in a regulated way to produce two daughter cells, it goes berserk and produces millions and millions and trillions of cells. These cells are very aggressive and they'll invade a lymph vessel. Who saw the film of Farrah Fawcett? I advise you to see the film, because it really shows the devastation that cancer causes and the awful pain. And often it will go to the brain and the patient develops incontinence of urine and feces. And then they can't think properly, and they get headaches. And this is why I do this work -- to prevent more cancers from occurring. Because nuclear power and radiation are going to induce epidemics of malignancy, particularly in children, forever more. This is a wicked, wicked industry. It's much more dangerous than smoking, because smoking only kills the smoker. This we leave as a legacy to all future generations, so that they'll wake up in the morning with breast milk that’s already radioactive, because these isotopes concentrate in the food chain.

There are farms in Britain, thousands of miles away from Chernobyl, where the lambs are so full of Cesium-137, they can't sell them because they're so radioactive. The government told them they should close the farms, they told the farmers and the farmers said, "For how long?" And they said, "Oh, about 100 years." No, that's 600 years.

Turkey got a hell of a fallout.  The herbs from Turkey are very radioactive and you know they're exporting now dried apricots. I went to my health food shop the other day and I saw there were dried apricots from Turkey. And I said, "Are these radioactive?" And he said, "Well they're organic." So I rang the guy in charge of testing food in Australia, and I said, "How do you test the food from Europe?" And he said, "Well, we do random spot-checks." I said, "How do you do that?" "The computer picks out certain batches, so it's random." I said, "What do you do when you find radioactive food?" He said, "We dilute it with non-radioactive food" --not understanding biology: that the solution to pollution by dilution is fallacious when it comes to radiation. Because it reconcentrates by orders of magnitude--in the algae, in the crustaceans, little fish, big fish, and us. And we're at the apex of the pyramid of the food chain. And the same with land-grown vegetables and fruit.

So that’s how cancer kills you: it spreads to the liver and the brain and lungs. And it’s really a parasite. And you can see a patient with cancer just sort of withering away. And when the patient dies, so does the cancer die. So it's a parasite. And it's increasing in frequency.

Now the other very important thing about radiation is the egg and sperm -- both of which contain half the number of chromosomes in genes. Every single gene in every single egg and sperm is precious. Now we all carry several hundred genes for disease -- like diabetes, cystic fibrosis, phenylketanuria, you name it -- most of which are recessive. You have to have two blue-eyed genes to get blue eyes, because they're recessive. If you have a blue-eyed and a brown-eyed gene, the brown-eyed gene dominates; you're going to have brown eyes.

So my specialty is cystic fibrosis. One in 25 of us carry the gene--Caucasians -- so in this room there would be a few carriers. The incidence is one per 1,600 live births, and it's fatal and it's a tragic, tragic disease. The reason we have abnormal, aberrant genes is radiation in the past. Radiation-induced mutations, some of which were advantageous: so fish developed lungs, birds developed wings -- and we evolved! This magnificent species of human beings, with this huge neocortex and opposing thumb. We can stand on our hind limbs. I think we're an evolutionary aberrant, actually, because we're destroying the planet.

But most mutations that occur through time and now are deleterious -- they produce disease. You know, we've only been here a short time, like one-and-a-half million years. We're so young! So all mutations caused by the nuclear industry and chemicals and the like -- almost all are deleterious. So over time, it takes 20 generations for a recessive mutation to express itself. So two of them get together and a kid is born with CF or diabetes. You'll see an increased incidence of genetic disease for the rest of time. And there are now 25,000 genetic diseases described. OK? This is all in my book, "Nuclear Power is Not the Answer to Global Warming."

So nuclear power's going to leave a legacy, - I mean it's just obscene. The uranium is enriched and formed into ceramic pellets and put in zirconium fuel rods, which are half an inch thick and twelve yards long, like a curtain rod. You take it along to a reactor and you pack 100 tons of uranium in the reactor core. You submerge it in water, H20, and there are moderating rods which moderate the flux of neutrons, and they're made of boron. And if you slowly lift the moderating rods out, because uranium atoms are always shooting off neutrons naturally, it reaches what's called critical mass, which is what you get in a nuclear explosion. Except it's controlled criticality, so it doesn't explode. But the heat -- huge amounts of heat are produced -- because E=mc2. Energy equals the mass of atoms times the speed of light squared. And that's the energy that's released by splitting the atoms. It's primal energy -- it's the energy inside the center of the sun. And this energy is hot, it boils the water, the steam is taken off, which turns the turbine, which generates electricity. So all a nuclear power plant is designed to do is to boil water. It's like cutting a pound of butter with a chain saw.

So what happens is 200 new elements are made, none of which existed before, all of which are intensely radioactive. And that's nuclear waste. Some last seconds and some last, for instance I-129, radioactive iodine lasts 17 million years. OK? Now every year, one-third of the fuel rods are removed -- 30 tons -- and put in big cooling pools -- they call them euphemistically swimming pools -- beside the reactor. These could melt down. They contain 10 - 30 times more radiation actually than in the reactor itself. Anyway, each reactor uses a million gallons of water per minute. So they have to be located either on the coast. And as global warming occurs and the sea levels rise, so the control rooms and mechanisms will be flooded and there'll be meltdowns all around the world.

Number one, there are 404 reactors in the world, 104 in America. And this water comes out after it's been used. It's a secondary coolant; it doesn't mix with the primary coolant, which is incredibly radioactive. But this water which is released is full of nasty gear, isotopes. And a reactor can't operate without continually emitting radiation into the atmosphere. And the water, what are the isotopes? One of them is tritium, which is radioactive hydrogen, H3. And you had a lot of tritium being released at the Berkeley National Labs. And you've closed it down and congratulations to you for that. But tritium is interesting— it gets through everything except gold. It'll escape through glass, plastic, stainless steel. And so an awful lot of tritium was released up there. And it's a potent carcinogen. In fact, tritium is absorbed directly through the skin. Skin lets nothing through. This is the most important organ of our body, the skin, but tritium gets through. It combines actually in the DNA molecule; it's very mutagenic, and it causes cancer of the brain and muscles, and, well, anywhere it lands. It has a half-life of 12.3 years, so it's around… you multiply half-life by 20 — over 100 years.

Now every year one-third of the fuel rods are removed -- 30 tons -- and put in big cooling pools by crane, by remote control. If you stand next to one fuel rod -- they're called "spent" but they're radioactive as hell -- the gamma radiation being given off, you've got a lethal dose in a few seconds. Now you won't die immediately -- your hair will fall out, you'll start bleeding, vomiting, diarrhea and die of acute radiation illness within days. So, as we'd say in Australia, they're "bloody hot" --thermally, and if they're not continually cooled down, they’ll melt down themselves. If the cooling water's lost here, the whole thing melts into a molten mess like lava, and it disappears. Like in Chernobyl, they couldn't find it for ages. It just melts into the Earth -- it's called the "Melt Through to China Syndrome." It melted too at Three Mile Island, it was a major meltdown. I wrote about that in the book.

The other things that are released are krypton,  xenon, and argon. Now they're called Noble Gases because they don't combine chemically in the body. However, they will be absorbed from the lungs, and they're very fat-soluble so that they go to fatty areas, like the abdominal fat and upper thighs. What's located there? Yeah, the gonads. And they're very high energy gamma emitters. So if you're living near a reactor, you could easily -- if there's an inversion system -- be immersed in a cloud of Noble Gases.

I'll just take four significant isotopes that are made in reactors, knowing that there are 200 or more. OK, so radioactive iodine -- you all know about that, don't you, I-131. It has a half-life of eight days, it's around for six weeks. And what organ uses iodine? Thyroid! I've got a multi-nodular goiter, so does my brother. We were exposed to a hell of a fallout from British bombs -- or a British bomb -- when I moved to Adelaide. How do I know? Because they tested the thyroids of sheep, never looked at human beings. Now a chocolate is chock-a-block full of radioactive iodine. This is a gamma-emitter and a beta. Remember the electron? It only lasts though for, you know, six weeks. That's why when they powdered the milk at Hershey's they knew it didn't contain this anymore. But what else got out--Strontium 90. It's a beta and a gamma and it lasts for 28 years. So it's around for 600 years. It's a calcium analog like radium, so it goes to the bone, where it irradiates a small volume of either osteo­blasts which are bone-forming cells. And you can develop an osteogenic sarcoma, like Teddy Kennedy's son had; he had his leg amputated. They're pretty lethal. Or you can get leukemia, because the blood cells are made in the bone marrow. So if an immature white blood cell's regulatory gene mutates, later it becomes malignant. And the incubation time for leukemia is only five years. And we saw that in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And your blood becomes full of immature white blood cells and you can't fight an infection -- like AIDS patients, who have damaged white blood cells. So you die of infection or massive hemorrhage.

Cesium-137, which is all over Europe big time, half life is 30 years, so it's around for 600. Like the sheep in England, it's a beta and a gamma emitter. And these all bioconcentrate by orders of magnitude in the food chain.

Last but not least is plutonium, which is why uranium was fissioned in the first place at the University of Chicago. These universities, they are -doing such evil. OK, so plutonium is the only other thing that is fissionable and that's what they make most of the bombs out of. Of the 30,000 or so bombs in the world today, hydrogen bombs, America and Russia own 97%. And they're threatening each other every second of every day, with these weapons on hair-trigger alert. They take half an hour to go where they're going to go, vice-versa, so the whole thing's over in an hour. I don't know how we're still here.

OK. Plutonium is one of the most toxic, mutagenic substances we know. It's only an alpha-emitter. You can hold it in the palm of your hand. The alpha particle doesn't travel far enough through the dead layers of the epithelium to damage living cells in the dermis. However, if you get it into your body -- your lung -- it's a potent mutagen. It either kills the cell or mutates it. When they injected it into beagle dogs, there wasn't a dose low enough – ten to the minus 9 grams actually - that didn't cause all the dogs to get cancer. That's how mutagenic and carcinogenic it is. Each reactor makes 500 pounds of it a year, and you need ten pounds to make yourself a bomb the size of a grapefruit. So every country that gets a nuclear reactor gets a bomb factory. And we in Australia are selling uranium left, right and center. And you're [U.S.] selling the reactors.

Cooling pools: they're becoming over-full and stuffed. Too full from the original design -- they don't know where to put it and so one of the reasons they wanted to open Yucca Mountain is to get rid of the waste and send it thousands of miles away so that they can then store more waste.

Plutonium is handled like iron by the body, so it combines with the iron-transporting protein transferon, so it can be transferred to the mediastinal lymph nodes, where it can cause Hodgkin's or Lymphoma; to the liver, where it causes liver cancer--primary; to the bones, because the hemoglobin is made in the bones; in the red blood cells, so it can cause leukemia or bone cancer. It has a predilection for testicles, and most males in the northern hemisphere have a tiny load of plutonium next to the spermatogonia, which are the precursors of the sperm from the weapons-testing days, and that stuff is still falling out. Minute amounts, but testicular cancer is increasing in frequency--interesting--and if a man's got plutonium in him, or I do, and I'm cremated, out the chimney goes smoke with the  plutonium, to get into you. And then if you're cremated, to you -- for the rest of time. Cremation is now contra-indicated because it increases global warming. Don't ever be cremated. I'm going to be buried in a shroud, like the Jews do -- they tie your big toes together with string, wrap you in a sheet and put you in the ground while I'm nice and fresh and I can feed the worms. But I digress there.

The other thing that plutonium does is: the placenta lets nothing through-- it's very, very protective of the fetus, but it lets plutonium through. So what it can do is like thalydomide, you know, what pregnant women took for morning sickness. It can do what's happening to the babies in Iraq, who are being born with gross deformities: destroy the septum of the heart, or the left brain, or the right arm or whatever. That's called teratogenesis: damage of a genetically, chromosomally normal fetus. It's great stuff, plutonium.

So here we've got a mechanism to induce in various isotopes -- now I've only introduced four -- cancers, epidemics for the rest of time, and bombs.

I'll end by saying that the planet is a patient, it's terminally ill, it's in the Intensive Care Unit. And we're all now physicians to a dying planet. And we don't go to bed when our patients are sick at 3:00 in the morning, even though we can hardly think. Right?

Thank you.

That was Dr. Helen Caldicott. You heard a half hour excerpt from her one hour appeal in 2009 to President Obama. She was urging him to end his support for nuclear power.

You can hear the audio version of this talk at: <www.tucradio.org>. This talk is also available as DVD via the same website.