From The Ear To The Page: Nuclear Activist Helen Caldicott

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Recently I’ve been playing around with making hard copy transcriptions of some of the radio interviews I’ve done, and I’m happy to report that I’ve discovered an Internet browser-based transcription service that I can highly recommend. It’s called Transcribe and can be found here:

The versatile service allows you to upload an audio file, which then returns a written file in a short time.  I would say the accuracy is above 90% if the sound is clear. It also allows you to correct and make additions to the written file by providing various tools including an audio player that can play the audio at a slower speed while you make corrections in an integrated word processing window. You can then export the completed file into Word (docx) or txt formats.

You can also dictate in real time directly into the service, although I haven’t tried that.

The price is quite reasonable, based on the length of the recording and a yearly sign up fee. Below is an example based on a 15 minute radio interview; it took me about an extra 20 minutes of formatting to get it into shape after using Transcribe. It would have taken me hours and hours without the service, so it was definitely worth it to me.

On this month’s anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the recent Skyfall nuclear explosions in Russia, I thought re-visiting this interview with nuclear activist Helen Caldicott would be particularly timely and relevant.


JACK SHALOM: With tensions between nuclear nations ratcheted up to levels not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the necessity of world action to ban such weapons is more important than ever.

Our guest, Dr. Helen Caldicott, has been a tireless anti-nuclear activist for over 40 years. She’s the co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, author of several groundbreaking books including If You Love Your Planet, and was named by the Smithsonian Institute as one of the most influential women of the 20th century. She’s also the editor of a new book Sleepwalking to Armageddon, a wake-up call collection of essays about stopping the nuclear madness.

I’m happy to welcome Dr. Helen Caldicott. Hi, Dr. Caldicott.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Thank you, Jack.

JACK: Dr. Caldicott, in 1982 over one million people including myself gathered in New York City angrily proclaiming “No Nukes!” But now, thirty years later, the on-the-ground anti-nuke movement seems to have almost disappeared. What happened?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, what happened was that all of us together helped to bring the Cold War to an end, and finally Reagan and Gorbachev got together in Reykjavik and almost decided actually to abolish nuclear weapons in 1987. And when the Berlin Wall came down, all of us I think thought, thank God it’s over, we were so tired and exhausted, and we thought well, they’ll do the right thing and they’ll start getting rid of nuclear weapons.

And people and politicians starting talking about the peace dividend, but that was not good for the prevailing corporations of the time, the military industrial complex. They need wars to keep going and actually to steal the American taxpayers’ dollars to the tune of one trillion dollars a year. And unfortunately, because of that, and because of the power of the Pentagon, and because of the politicians and presidents who didn’t follow up on what the people desired, the weapons still stayed in place. True, many of them were decommissioned, but of a 16,400 nuclear weapons in the world today, Russia and America own 94% of them. So we’re still in a very invidious position where the whole of life on Earth could be destroyed with a decision by one man who is not entirely stable.

JACK: Do you think that we’re more in danger now that Trump is president, or is there an internal logic independent of any particular president?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, I’m not the only one who thinks that we’re more in danger. William Perry former secretary of defense is terribly concerned; General Cartwright, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is deeply concerned; many people in Congress are, so yes, we’ve got a man who many psychiatrists have written about, saying that he is volatile, mentally unstable, impetuous, narcissistic, childlike. Really, I mean, Dr. Strangelove has nothing on this. This is a most extraordinary situation and yet we’re treating it with a kind of psychic numbing and manic denial. We’re not facing reality. The Earth is in the Intensive Care Unit and we’re sort of walking away and pretending everything’s okay.

JACK: Talk a little bit about launch on warning and how subject to human error these systems are.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Yes, well, the man who writes very well about this is Bruce Blair who used to be a missle-ier himself. He was a Minuteman, and they’re called Minutemen in the silos because they have three minutes in which to get themselves organized to launch their missiles. There are hundreds of silos in the midwest; in each silo is a missile with up to three hydrogen bombs on it. There are two men in each missile silo, each armed with a pistol, one to shoot the other if one shows signs of deviant behavior. So suppose the deviant one shot the other one? The missles are operated with floppy disks. They have telephones which often do not work. In the last couple of years about seventy-eight men of those of Minutemen have been dismissed because they’ve cheated on exams, taken drugs, gone to sleep down in the silos. The way it works is that a nuclear war would be initiated if satellites picked up missiles coming from Russia, but this can be misinterpreted—so, once a flock of geese alerted the early warning system.

JACK: One of the essays in the book quotes Los Alamos director Harold Agnew as saying he would require every world leader to witness an atomic blast every five years, because we’re approaching an era where there aren’t any of us left to have ever seen the Megaton bomb go off, and it’s it’s all computer simulated now. Could you speak to that a bit?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Yes. I think that most people now don’t understand what a hydrogen bomb means. And so I’m going to just describe a hydrogen bomb exploding over New York City.

Mind you, you have at least 12, but maybe 40, Russian, very large hydrogen bombs targeted on New York City alone. Each port is targeted, each tunnel, each bridge, and it goes on and on and on. Universities are targeted, and every town and city with a population of 50,000 or more is targeted with at least one hydrogen bomb.

Okay. So the bomb — the missile—takes half an hour from launch to land, and it will explode with I think it six times the heat inside the center of the sun, digging a hole three quarters of a mile wide and eight hundred feet deep, turning the dirt below the buildings and the people into radioactive fallout, shot up in a mushroom cloud. Five miles from the epicenter in all directions, everyone is vaporized, turned into gas as they were in Hiroshima; twenty miles out, everyone is lethally injured or burnt. People are turned into missiles, sucked out of buildings, traveling at a hundred miles an hour.  Shards of glass, popcorn from windows are traveling at a hundred miles an hour, decapitating people; and then the whole area would eventually be engulfed in a firestorm 3,000 square miles where everything and everyone would burn. Even concrete will burn; steel, aluminium and the like will melt. People in fallout shelters would be asphyxiated and pressure-cooked as the fire uses up all the oxygen in the shelter as happened in the Dresden firestorm.

Now that’s just one bomb, but consider that all cities across America and Canada are targeted and that the fire will spread even in the middle of winter. They will coalesce from north to south, east to west, and the whole of the US and in fact much of North America will be engulfed in fire. And it’s interesting that when the Pentagon calculates the damage that nuclear weapons produce, they only think about blast effects and calculate blast. They never talk about fire. It’s totally ignored which is fascinating in that in itself, but very, very dangerous. So it’s just one bomb on New York City. You’ve got at least 12, but some people say 40.

JACK: Extraordinary. You know, some of the younger generation of environmental activists in their zeal to ban fossil fuels have actually advocated for nuclear power. Could you talk about the relationship of the nuclear weapons industry to the nuclear power industry? And is it possible to be against one and for the other?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, not if you’re scientifically literate.

The main thing, I think about nuclear power plants and meltdowns at Fukushima and Chernobyl and epidemics of cancer, leukemia, genetic disease, congenital deformities and the like is the nuclear waste. Nuclear waste according to the EPA must be isolated from the ecosphere for a million years, because some of the isotopes last very very long, some of the radioactive elements. These elements will leak in whatever you put them in: concrete, steel, whatever, within a hundred years and it doesn’t matter how deep you bury them or what. They’ll leak and they will eventually enter the water and then they will enter into the food chains.

And when you’re eating a fish with cesium in it from Fukushima that swam across the Pacific, you don’t taste the cesium. You can’t smell it and you can’t see it. These radioactive elements are invisible to human senses. So what we’re leaving to our descendants is a heritage of epidemics of cancer, leukemia, genetic diseases, because these elements concentrate in testicles and ovaries and can damage the genes of future generations. There are over 2600 genetic diseases now described. My specialty is one of the most common, cystic fibrosis, which is a fatal genetic disease. Those diseases will increase in frequency not just in humans, but in all species. Plutonium, which is a potent carcinogen which lasts a quarter of a million years, crosses the placenta because it’s an iron analog. The body thinks it’s iron and then the first trimester of intrauterine life it can do what thalidomide did, deform the right half of the brain or the left arm.

JACK: And the plutonium, of course, that is created by the nuclear power industry is used for the nuclear weapons?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Yes, it takes ten pounds of plutonium to make a nuclear weapon. That’s the fuel and each reactor makes 500 pounds of plutonium a year, and it’s absolutely deadly. One millionth of a gram will cause cancer. So any country that has a nuclear reactor of course can make bombs like India did and Pakistan did and France did, and the like. In fact your reactors were based in Hanford, Washington, which is just a cocktail of radioactive waste leaking into the Columbia River which in the past has been the most radioactive river in the world.

JACK: So what can we do, or is it too late? What can be done?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, I mean, we should close down every single reactor right now and not make any more of this stuff.

JACK: But through what mechanism? I mean, how can this be done? How can–how can people on the ground effect the situation?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Oh, well, it’s through politics. You know, if enough people care and they’re potent enough, the politicians react; if the people don’t care, don’t know—the politicians, you know, are in the hands of the corporations and the nuclear companies and they’re in essence corporate prostitutes. I think people have to understand that the people in Congress are your representatives and you are their leaders.

JACK: As far as I know, there’s nobody from any of the major parties that I had a chance to vote for who called for the dismantling of nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, then you must educate your representatives. If they don’t understand, you must go in with some doctors, physicians, and make an appointment, have an hour with them, and then educate them just as I’ve been talking tonight, so that they know what you’re dealing with, and what you demand. And then you must keep the pressure on and say, if you don’t do this, you know, we’ll make sure you’re not elected next time. And then you will door knock and write letters to the paper and get on television and get on talkback radio. As Jefferson said, an informed democracy will behave in a responsible fashion.

JACK: I wish we did have one. I think you might be overestimating the level of democracy in this country.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Potentially, you’ve got a democracy, potentially and it’s not being used, it’s being wasted. It’s a democratic vacuum at the moment because you know, people are into buying stuff and drinking their lattes and manic denial and displacement activity.

JACK: Is there anything to feel optimistic about?

HELEN CALDICOTT: Yes, yourself. Think of what I did. I mean I turned up in America in 1978. I was on the faculty at Harvard, but you know, I was an alien, I was a young doctor, I was a woman, and yet because of my deep concern I revived Physicians for Social Responsibility. We recruited 23,000 doctors and I became one of the leaders of the nuclear weapons freeze, just because I was well informed and I was deeply concerned. Anybody can be a leader if they decide to do the right thing. After all, why are we here?

JACK: Well, thanks so much, Dr. Caldicott. I wish we had another half hour to talk. I know we’ve only scratched the surface here, and I would have liked to have gotten more into what everyday people can do, and what the limits are of the system we’re working under, but we’ll have to wait for another time.

HELEN CALDICOTT: Well, I don’t think there are any limits. I mean to my experience there aren’t, you just have to become a Joan of Arc or a John of Arc and get on and be determined and really look in the mirror every morning and decide what you’re going to do to help save the planet. We can do it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be talking. Well, thank you Jack. Thank you so much.

JACK: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Helen Caldicott, editor of the new collection of essays about stopping the nuclear madness called Sleepwalking to Armageddon. This has been Jack Shalom for Arts Express with host Prairie Miller.

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