by Byron DeLear
The inimitable Dr. Helen Caldicott will be traveling to Saint Louis to conduct a symposium on the health impacts of radioactivity and nuclear waste on Saturday, February 20th at St. Louis Community College-Wildwood. Recently, the radioactive West Lake Landfill in north St. Louis County has made international headlines due to an encroaching underground fire threatening to incinerate the radwaste, in addition to the revelation of the largely unheralded, pivotal role St. Louis played for the Manhattan Project during World War II.
The situation at West Lake is a particularly egregious example of federal negligence. The EPA, now increasingly beleaguered with mounting scandals such as lead poisoning in Flint, has done virtually nothing to clean-up the West Lake site. For 43 years, an escalatory track depicts increasing levels of sickness, disease, and death for nearby residents. We have been covering this evolving story in a series of articles including unpacking the convoluted history and delving into how and why this highly radiotoxic material was orphaned and left to plague the region. Dr. Caldicott’s visit next Saturday comes in the wake of the passage of a bipartisan U.S. Senate bill to replace the EPA with the Army Corps of Engineers as the lead agency to facilitate the site’s clean-up. Companion legislation is still pending in the U.S. House.
At Saturday’s symposium, Caldicott will be joined by Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment (1993-1999); Denise Brock, ombudsman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Office of Compensation Analysis and Support and the Centers for Disease Control; Dr. Sam Page, St. Louis County Councilman (Dist. 2); and Mark Harder, St. Louis County Councilman (Dist. 7). Ray Hartmann, of “St. Louis Magazine” and “Donnybrook,” will help further the dialog among these professionals and an audience of special guests, community members, academics and students.
“My main role and task at the St. Louis symposium will be as a pediatrician and physician in talking to the people about the medical effects of this dreadful situation that they’re living with day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year.”—Dr. Helen Caldicott
An internationally recognized expert on the dangers of nuclear energy, Dr. Caldicott is the recipient of 21 honorary doctoral degrees in part for work on the nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl. As the founding president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, she helped organize 23,000 medical professionals in educating the public about nuclear industry perils, and in 1985, the umbrella organization for these efforts was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In an exclusive with Examiner.com, I asked her to explain the purpose of her trip to St. Louis:
Helen Caldicott: “I’m very much looking forward to my trip to St. Louis and to the symposium held at the community college because I think it’s imperative that people—mothers, fathers, and grandparents—understand the medical dangers of living near a nuclear waste dump. It’s surprising to me that there hasn’t been one official data collection program by the Federal Government about how many cancers have been produced since this dump was initiated so many years ago and what sort of cancers they are. It’s quite astonishing to me that this has been neglected and the people living next door to this dump are victims of the Manhattan Project. So, I’m looking forward to explaining to people how radiation causes cancer, genetic abnormalities, and congenital defects; I’m looking forward to explain the decay cycle of uranium and thorium—they decay into many other elements, many of which are highly carcinogenic and dangerous. My main role and task at the symposium will be as a pediatrician and physician in talking to the people about the medical effects of this dreadful situation that they’re living with day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year.
I founded Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1978, an organization that was defunct for several years. We restarted it and recruited 23,000 physicians in America in 153 chapters, and we educated the American people about the medical dangers of all phases of the nuclear fuel chain from uranium mining, milling, and enrichment; nuclear power; nuclear waste; and nuclear weapons—but specifically, the medical implications of nuclear war. So I’ll be talking from that perspective.
“There’s a kind of ‘nuclear fiction’ in America that stems from the Manhattan Project and that brings us back to West Lake again and the people who are suffering there.”
Byron DeLear: “Why do you think that these federal agencies seem to tend to want to obfuscate and cover-up the real health impacts of this contamination?”
HC: “The federal agencies are not really interested in remediation unless they absolutely have to do it because they’re interested in building bombs and building nuclear power plants—but cleaning-up their mess? That’s not part of their agenda and never has been. The problem is that we’re now moving into the period of nuclear waste—we’re leaving the period or the “age” of nuclear power because it’s not working and cannot be financed; it’s so expensive, and because we’re moving rapidly into renewable energy.
So, now we’ve got, I think its 350,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste accumulating around the world; in Japan, in Britain, in France, in many European countries at their nuclear reactors. Specifically in America and Russia, the waste is emanating from the production of nuclear weapons and this is what we’re dealing with at West Lake. There’s no interest really in the government doing anything about it because they like to invent things and in particular want to work with the atom which is an extreme and powerful form of energy. But cleaning-up the waste doesn’t interest them because many of them are physicists and engineers—they don’t understand the medical ramifications. If they themselves get cancer from having dealt with radiation then they kind of understand, but its swept under the carpet mostly and so the money at present—over a trillion dollars—is going to build new nuclear weapons and delivery systems over the next 30 years—a trillion dollars, which is absolutely obscene.
“The waste is emanating from the production of nuclear weapons and this is what we’re dealing with at West Lake.”—Dr. Helen Caldicott
There’s a kind of “nuclear fiction” in America that stems from the Manhattan Project and that brings us back to West Lake again and the people who are suffering there. The problem is the absolute persistence of this waste—the half-life of Uranium-238 is 4.5 billion years, so it will be there forever. And what do they do with it? Pick it up? And where do they take it? What poor community will have to put up with this radioactive detritus for the rest of time? Do they bury in the desert? What if it rains because of global warming and it contaminates underground rivers and food supplies and all that? So, the situation is overwhelming.
“No one knows what to do with radioactive waste. I’ve been saying for 40 years, what are you going to do with the waste? And they say, ‘Trust us we’re excellent scientists, one day we’ll find the answer.’”
No one knows what to do with radioactive waste. I’ve been saying for 40 years, what are you going to do with the waste? And they say, ‘Trust us we’re excellent scientists, one day we’ll find the answer.’ Well, that’s like me saying to a patient, ‘Well, you’ve got a pancreatic carcinoma, your prognosis is about six months, but trust me in about 20 years time I’ll find a cure.’ There is a situation in America called the ‘Waste Confidence Act’ which means that the industry has ‘confidence’—confidence that one day they’ll work out what to do with all this radioactive waste. So, the situation is insane, or should I say is “there is a gap between reality and perception of reality.” And it’s extremely serious. This waste down the time-track will induce, as I wrote in my book Nuclear Madness in 1978, epidemics of cancer, leukemia, genetic disease, congenital deformities for the rest of time. But no one really wants to know about it until there’s a nuclear accident like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima, where everyone is desperate to know what’s happening. So you can talk until you’re blue in the face to educate people, but until they really understand in an acute situation they tend not to be so interested. But the people living near West Lake, they understand, and the power of the people is the ultimate power for redress. As Jefferson said, ‘An informed democracy will behave in a responsible fashion.’ So, what I like to do is practice preventive medicine by teaching people the dangers so that they’ll do something about it.
BD: A lot of these local communities, counties, and cities feel under siege by a recalcitrant and callous Federal Government, like the EPA. You mention the power of the people is really the ultimate solution in calling attention to these nuclear waste sites, what are some of your insights into how that movement really becomes energized?
HC: Everyone can be a ‘John’ or ‘Joan of Arc’—I came to America [from Australia] and was called an ‘alien’—a young woman doctor. And because of my passion and my knowledge I led a movement. I was the leader of the [Nuclear] Freeze Movement along with Randy Forsberg who wrote ‘the Freeze’ [Call to Halt the Arms Race] and we mobilized the American people. You can do anything you want to do if you’ve got the passion in your soul and you speak your truth. Don’t try and please people, only speak the truth, and be determined to get to where you want to go.
“You can do anything you want to do if you’ve got the passion in your soul and you speak your truth.”
If you want to go and see the President, you can get to see the President. I spent an hour and a quarter with Ronald Reagan. You can do whatever you want if you decide to do it and that’s what a democracy is about. You’ve got to use your democracy—make sure your representatives represent you and not the corporations—but take it beyond that and educate the whole population. I mean, it’s all possible. You just have to decide if you’re going to do it. And it really is about love—if you love your children and you love your grandchildren, that’s what you’ll do.”
The event this Saturday begins at 6 p.m. with a reception and art gallery exhibit featuring work inspired by the people and communities affected by nuclear waste. The exhibit includes paintings, drawings and photographs from three artists: Christen Commuso, founder of the “Humans of West Lake Landfill” Facebook page; Jason Hargrove, creator of the “Contaminate St. Louis” exhibit; and Chris Davis, son of the first Mallinckrodt claimant to be compensated under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA).
Saturday, Feb. 20 from 6-9 p.m. at St. Louis Community College-Wildwood, 2645 Generations Drive in Wildwood, Missouri.