Voices from Chernobyl on the 28th Anniversary of the Catastrophe

After the Nazi Holocaust, the world accepted oral histories as the evidence of what had occurred. This only seems natural, and it is easy to imagine the uproar that would ensue if public intellectuals and United Nations agencies suddenly declared that these oral histories were unreliable or based on a misunderstanding of the true causes of the suffering. However, when it comes to Chernobyl, Fukushima, and other nuclear disasters, oral history gets dismissed as ‘anecdotal,’ or motivated by a desire to gain status as a compensated victim. In spite of all the official neglect of the victims, there are a few good collections of oral histories in books and documentary films. In these, hundreds of witnesses all tell similar accounts that contradict the official conclusions.
One of the best oral histories was Voices from Chernobyl, compiled by Svetlana Alexievich in the 1990s and translated into English in 2005. To commemorate the 28th anniversary of the catastrophe, I’ve collected a few excerpts below, but they really don’t do justice to the full impact of reading the whole book. Most of these voices belong to the liquidators, the 700,000 people from all over the Soviet Union who were conscripted into various tasks related not only to taming the reactor but also to “cleaning up” and evacuating the exclusion zone, and many of these jobs ended up being absurd and desperate rites of decontamination and dispossession in a world where “the Apocalypse met the Stone Age.” (p.87) The work was lubricated with a flood of alcohol that turned the zone into a black market with a vodka currency, and this itself invites the question whether it was an official ploy to make sure that the veterans of the Battle of Chernobyl would fade away into alcoholism before their problems could be clearly linked to radiation.

What is apparent from reading their accounts is that the rate of death and disease was much higher than the official studies ever admitted. To this day, the World Health Organization supports the view expressed in this statement:

According to UNSCEAR (2000), 134 liquidators received radiation doses high enough to be diagnosed with acute radiation sickness (ARS). Among them, 28 persons died in 1986 due to ARS. Other liquidators have since died but their deaths could not necessarily be attributed to radiation exposure.

Voices from Chernobyl

There you are: a normal person. A little person. You’re just like everyone else--you go to work, you return from work. You get an average salary. Once a year you go on vacation. You’re a normal person! And then one day you’re turned into a Chernobyl person, an animal that everyone is interested in, and that no one knows anything about. You want to be like everyone else, and now you can’t. People look at you differently. They ask you: Was it scary? How did that station burn? What did you see? And, you know, can you have children? Did your wife leave you? At first we were all turned into animals. The very word “Chernobyl” is like a signal. Everyone turns their head to look. He’s from there! (p. 31)

There’s a note on the door: “Dear Kind Person, please don’t look for valuables here. We never had any. Use whatever you want, but don’t trash the place. We’ll be back.” I saw signs on other houses in different colors—“Dear house, forgive us!” People said goodbye to their homes like they were people. Or they’d written: “we’re leaving in the morning,” or “we’re leaving at night,” and they’d put the date and even the time. There were notes written on school notebook paper: “Don’t beat the cat. Otherwise the rats will eat everything.” And then in a child’s handwriting: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good cat.” I’ve forgotten everything. I only remember that I went there, and after that I don’t remember anything. I forgot all of it. I can’t count money. My memory’s not right. The doctors can’t understand it. I go from hospital to hospital. But this sticks in my head: you’re walking up to the house, thinking the house is empty, and you open the door and there’s this cat. That, and those kids’ notes. (p.36-37)

We started thinking about it—I guess it must have been—three years later. One of the guys got sick, then another. Someone died. Another went insane and killed himself. That’s when we started thinking. But we’ll really only understand it in about 20-30 years. For me, Afghanistan (I was there two years) and then Chernobyl (I was there three months), are the most memorable moments of my life. (p.39)

We came home. I took off all the clothes that I’d worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumor in his brain… You can write the rest of this yourself. I don’t want to talk anymore. (p.40)

There were already jokes. Guy comes home from work, says to his wife, “They told me that tomorrow I either go to Chernobyl or hand in my Party card.” “But you’re not in the Party.” “Right, so I’m wondering: how do I get a Party card by tomorrow morning?” (p. 44)

After Chernobyl you can eat anything you want, but you have to bury your shit in a lead box… The prayer of the Chernobyl liquidator: Dear Lord, since you made it so that I can’t, will you please also make it so that I don’t want to? (p.48)

We’re lonely. We’re strangers here. They even bury us separately, not like they do other people. It’s like we’re aliens from outer space. I’d have been better off dying in Afghanistan. Honest, I get thoughts like that. In Afghanistan death was a normal thing. You could understand it there. (p. 50)

I’ve wondered why everyone was silent about Chernobyl, why our writers weren’t writing much about it--they write about the war, the camps, but here they’re silent. Why? Do you think it’s an accident? If we’d beaten Chernobyl, people would talk about it and write about it more. Or if we’d understood Chernobyl. But we don’t know how to capture the meaning from it. We can’t place it in our human experience or our human time-frame.
So what’s better, to remember or to forget? (p. 86)

A group of scientists flew in on a helicopter. In special rubber suits, tall boots, protective goggles. Like they were going to the moon. This old woman comes up to one of them and says, “Who are you?” “I’m a scientist.” “Oh, a scientist. Look how he’s dressed up! Look at that mask! And what about us?” And she goes after him with a stick. I’ve thought a few times that someday they’re going to start hunting the scientists the way they used to hunt the doctors and drown them in the Middle Ages. (p.88)

The book finishes with a long, heartbreaking testimony entitled A Solitary Human Voice, that of Valentina Panasevich, who lost her husband to cancer after he returned from work as a liquidator. If you think you ever loved someone with complete devotion, Valentina might put you to shame. Chernobyl is a tale from the end of the Cold War and the end of the communist system in the USSR. It was the end of an age when people were expected to surrender their private life to ideology and sometimes even die for it. It is stunning to hear Valentina’s voice, a product of this era, speaking with total obliviousness and contempt for ideology and the projects of state: a fitting rebuke to the system that caused the tragedy, and a fitting affirmation of the primacy of the individual to conclude this book. Love is all there is. There was nothing for Valentina besides her love for her husband. She told the historian Alexievich:

In school, all the girls dreamt of going to university or on a Komsomol [Communist Youth League] work trip, but I dreamt of getting married. I wanted to love. To love strongly, like Natasha Rostov [in War and Peace]. Just to love. But I couldn’t tell anyone about it, because back then you were only supposed to dream of the Komsomol construction trip. (p.223)

In the final pages of the book, Valentina recounts how she met her husband and cared for him during his slow decline after he returned from conscripted duty at Chernobyl. Like so many of the preceding testimonies, her account describes how it was common knowledge among the people that the radiation had taken far more lives, and far more of a toll on the health and DNA of the victims, than were ever officially admitted:

One time I managed to get an ambulance. It arrives with a young doctor. He comes over and right away staggers back. “Excuse me, he’s not from Chernobyl [a liquidator], is he?” I say, “Yes.” And he, I’m not exaggerating, he cries out, “Dear woman, then let this end quickly! Quickly! I’ve seen how the ones from Chernobyl die.” Meanwhile, my husband is conscious, he hears this. At least he doesn’t know, he hasn’t guessed, that he is the last one from his brigade still alive. (p.229)

Further reading:

"Svetlana Alexievich wins 2015 Nobel prize in literature," The Guardian, October 8, 2015.

One of the more compelling testimonies from Voices from Chernobyl (not excerpted above) was published in full in The Paris Review,Winter 2004.

Alla Yaroshinskaya. Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment (2011).

Jim Green. "Chernobyl: How Many Died?" The Ecologist. (April 26, 2014).


Asteroid Impact, Asteroid Tsunamis and Nuclear Facilities

Tsunamis are waves in the ocean or lakes generated by abrupt vertical movement of the seafloor or lake floor by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and, rarely, asteroid impact
City of Richmond, British Columbia, Canada

There are things that are important enough that you don't tolerate any risk. You have to have data to work with to generate reliable risk estimates. It just doesn't work for rare but catastrophic events.

David Schindler

I wrote most of this post (below the line) a few months after the asteroid strike on Russia in February 2013. At the time I thought it might have been a little excessive to worry about such a low-probability event, but recent news makes me feel vindicated. This really is a problem that our society should wake up to because it highlights once again one of the many ways that the nuclear legacy has many shocks and surprises in store for future generations. Benjamin Hart, in The Huffington Post, reported today:

Bad news, earthlings. A former NASA scientist says it's mere happenstance that an Armageddon-style asteroid hasn't hit a densely populated area in the last few years. On Tuesday, the B612 Foundation, which is devoted to preventing the next deep impact, will present data from a nuclear-weapons test warning satellite showing that far more asteroids have hit earth in the past few years than previously thought, the organization announced on its website.

The data, collected from a nuclear missile detection system that picks up large blasts on earth, shows that since 2001, asteroids have caused 26 explosions on the scale of an atomic bomb. 

“This data shows that asteroid impacts are NOT rare, but actually 3-10 times more common than we previously thought,” Ed Lu, one of the astronauts working on the project, said in a statement. "The fact that none of these asteroid impacts shown in the video was detected in advance is proof that the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a 'city-killer' sized asteroid is blind luck."

It is interesting that the scientists tell us that the asteroid would be comparable to a nuclear weapon, but they don't seem to be thinking about the other nuclear implications of an asteroid strike. An asteroid impact on a large city would also be likely to take out nuclear weapons and/or nuclear power plants and spent fuel storage pools. The result would be much more than the destruction of a city. It would likely include an event as severe as, or more severe than Chernobyl and Fukushima.

I wrote the paragraphs below in 2013, contemplating the risk of asteroid impacts and the tsunami waves they could cause on large bodies of water.

Maybe I think too much. But I’d worry less if the people who ran the nuclear industry worried a little more. Then again, if they worried more they might come to the logical conclusion that there shouldn't be nuclear plants.

Today I was thinking outside the box, wondering if I could think of a black swan event that no one else is paying attention to. Perhaps I’m doing this just for distraction, to take my mind off the more immediate danger close to home in Japan. Lately the world has been paying attention finally to the potential catastrophe that might unfold after work begins next month on Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Unit 4 Spent Fuel Pool (What’s the abbreviation for this? F1NPP-4SFP?) So for distraction, my thoughts wandered back to my original home by Lake Ontario, and I wondered if there isn’t some risk there that the Canadian nuclear people haven’t taken into account.

I know that nuclear plant operators have considered asteroid impacts before, but they have made no special measures to prepare for them. The thinking seems to be that the risk is too miniscule to think about, but if it happens, the impact will be too huge to worry about. If an asteroid landed near a nuclear plant, everyone in the area would be cooked anyway, so there’s no point in thinking about it.

The risk is miniscule because an asteroid that was big enough to do damage to a plant, but small enough not to cause a catastrophe on its own, would be pretty small. The chance of a small asteroid landing on a reactor building is just too small to worry about. The risk can never be zero, so forget about it. We accept this risk in order to have electricity, right?

But is the risk really that small? Orders of magnitude smaller than the risk of a giant tsunami in Japan? After the light show over Russia in February 2013, asteroid impacts suddenly didn’t seem like a remote possibility.

The question seems to be: Could there be something a little larger than the asteroid that landed on Russia, but small enough not to wipe out civilization, were it not for nuclear facilities that would melt and lay waste to the environment?

At Answers.com someone who was apparently knowledgeable in these matters, posted a good response to the question “What would happen if an asteroid hit the Great Lakes?”

This person set the variables as:
  • 1 mile wide asteroid, solid rock
  • Lake Michigan, 50 miles from Chicago
  • impact: 12 miles per second
  • impact in 800 feet of water 
There is a blinding flash of light, then a magnitude 8 earthquake. Buildings begin to crumble, meteor fragments begin to rain down on the city. A blast wave follows, then a deafening wall of sound. Finally, a 200-foot tsunami hits all shores of the lake and washes inland for 150 miles. But don’t worry, it happens only every few million years, and it probably wouldn’t land in the Great Lakes. 

So fine. But what if we change the variables a little? The Tunguska event of 1908 is believed to have been caused by an air burst of a rock 60–190 meters wide, and that was powerful enough to have had a force of 10-15 megatons and knock down trees over 2,150 square kilometers. If something of this size hits Chicago, Detroit or Toronto, no one will be worrying about radiation from nearby nuclear power plants. The decommissioning and waste disposal problem will be solved.

How about other scenarios? Should we worry? Maybe these things happen only over Russia. But just for fun, let’s consider the surface area of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, the four Great Lakes that have nuclear power plants situated nearby. How big would an asteroid have to be to cause a tall tsunami on these lakes, a wave bigger than anything power plant operators have planned for? My guess is that it could be much smaller than the one-mile wide rock, smaller than the Tunguska rock, but bigger than what landed on Russia in 2013. It would be a damaging wave, but the big cities on the lakes could recover, if they didn’t have to deal with nuclear fallout in the aftermath. Considering the surface area of the lakes and the frequency of asteroid impacts, this is an event “with probability significantly higher than zero,” as they like to say in the cautious lingo of risk assessment.
Now my mind goes back to something Arnie Gundersen said to Canadian nuclear regulators about the ultimate cause of the problems at Fukushima. We all know that the earthquake damaged the reactors and knocked down the outside transmission lines. We know that the waves flooded the backup power systems. However, what has been overlooked is that even if electrical power had not been cut, there still would have been the damage done to the pumps' cooling systems by the tsunami and earthquake. There is only one factor that leads to meltdown--loss of cooling, which can be caused by loss of power to the cooling system or physical damage to it. Fukushima Daiichi lost power, but the tsunami waves also did physical damage to the cooling system, and this on its own was enough to devastate the plant.* That’s the damage that an unexpectedly tall wave on the Great Lakes could do to a nuclear plant.

*From Peter Melzer's blog
Why Fukushima's Reactors Failed. November 4, 2013

... electric power must be available and the residual heat removal system must remain operable for nuclear reactors of the Fukushima type to successfully complete an emergency shutdown. These conditions impose a major constraint on accident recovery, representing a fundamental weakness of the reactor design. The residual heat removal system must remain operable under the conditions of flooding and station blackout.

Thirty reactors of this type currently operate in the United States. A number are sited in flood-prone areas. A moratorium should be imposed on these reactors, until the operators can ascertain that service water pumps are protected against inundation, debris, and loss of power.


Count the Joules, Not the Yen

To understand the deception in Japan's nuclear propaganda, you have to count the costs in energy units, not yen

I’ve written before about the dubious claim that Japan’s economy is doomed without nuclear energy. The government has promoted this narrative strongly, and the media have gone along for the ride. Most reports misleadingly label the electric utilities’ fossil fuel purchases as the country’s total fossil fuel imports, and they wrongly interpret rising fuel cost as rising fuel volume. The statistics presented below, showing fossil fuel imports in units of energy (1 Btu=1055 Joules), cast doubt on the myth, as they reveal that the 2011 crisis has had a fairly small impact on overall fossil fuel consumption. Discussion follows after the listing of the statistics.
Energy Statistics for Japan

1. Petroleum Consumption (quadrillion Btu)
2010: 8.976
2012: 9.532
6% increase from 2010-2012

2. Natural Gas Consumption (quadrillion Btu)
2010: 4.063 
2012: 4.876
20% increase from 2010 to 2012

3. Coal Consumption (quadrillion Btu)
2010: 4.827
2012: 4.770
1% decrease from 2010 to 2012

4. Total Energy Consumption, Petroleum+Natural Gas+Coal (quadrillion Btu)
2010: 17.866
2012: 19.178
7.3% increase

5. Electricity Generation (billion kilowatt-hours)
2010: 1,044.596
2012: 963.032
8% decrease from 2010 to 2012

Value of Japanese currency (per $US)
January 2011: 82 yen
April 2014: 103 yen
25% decrease in value

The Japanese government reports its trade deficit and energy costs in yen. The cost of importing fossil fuel has been influenced by changing world prices and by the Japanese government’s choice to decrease the value of the yen by 25%. Thus, the crisis is mostly one of cost, not of volume of fossil fuel consumed. Bloomberg Business Week reported recently:

Japan spent 27.4 trillion yen on fossil fuels in 2013, up 50 percent from 18.1 trillion yen in 2010, the year before the Fukushima disaster, according to Trade Ministry data.

Because of the yen devaluation of 25%, we know that the figure of 50% would have been only a 25% increase if the yen had kept its value. The Bloomberg report doesn’t tell us how much global energy costs have changed since 2010, nor does it tell us about the volume imported. However, number 4 in the list above shows the total fossil fuel consumption increased by 7.3% between 2010 and 2012, which indicates that the remainder of the cost difference, that which is not explained by currency depreciation, must be happening because of changes in the world market price. 
From this analysis, it can be seen that the loss of nuclear power in 2011 did not lead to a dramatic increase in fossil fuel consumption. The increase in natural gas imports seems to have been offset by energy efficiency, and declines in the consumption of electricity, trends which were already underway before the 2011 disaster.
The extra fossil fuel required in the absence of nuclear power doesn’t appear significant in the statistics listed above because it is a small fraction of total fossil fuel consumption for all uses (transportation, industry, heating, cooking and electricity generation). In 2012, petroleum accounted for 9.532 quadrillion Btu, while natural gas and coal accounted for about the same, 9.646 quadrillion Btu. Petroleum accounts for very little electricity generation, but coal and gas are used primarily for electricity generation, so we can see that only about half of fossil fuel imports are used to make electricity. This is a distinction that the Japanese government and the media have either deliberately or negligently refused to make. Almost all reporting on the fossil fuel import problem has framed it as if electricity generation consumed all fossil fuel imports, as if the 30% loss of generating capacity (caused by the nuclear shutdown) would lead directly to a 30% increase in fossil fuel imports. There has indeed been an import shock to the economy, but it is much more of a shock to the electric utilities. There is something remarkable in the fact that they confuse their extra purchases of fossil fuel with the whole nation’s purchases of fuel. It shows how much they have developed a l’├ętat c’est moi attitude.
It is said that nuclear energy used to generate 30% of Japan’s electricity, but it has become well understood since 2011 that this capacity will never be reached again (another issue which is discussed in the Bloomberg report). So even if it were true that fossil fuel imports are destroying the economy, nuclear wouldn’t provide much of a solution. An awful lot of money is being spent now to upgrade nuclear facilities in the hope that restarts will be approved, but much of this spending will end up being in vain. Nuclear, if restarts happen and no accidents ensue, will never again generate the 30% share. Under the stricter rules for operating nuclear power plants, many will never be started again. It is either impossible to make them safe, or not economically viable to make them safe. Many of them are too old to continue operating under the stricter rules, Fukushima Dai-ichi and Dai-ni are out of the picture forever, and there is little chance that any old reactors will be replaced by new ones.
And all this is being done just to get back to the status of 2011--to eliminate that 7.3% extra in fossil fuel imports. Yet if most of the nuclear capacity can never be restored, then the best hope is to reduce this figure to 4% or 5%--something which could be done by continuing with conservation, renewable development and efficiency gains. Not mentioned at all in any of the plans are the costs of operating and regulating nuclear plants, and importing uranium. The Japanese government talks as if Cameco and Areva just mine, process and ship their product for free.
Japan has deliberately favored making exports cheaper with its yen devaluation, and thus created a false balance-of-trade crisis by making its energy imports 25% more expensive than they need to be. The solution is to export more, but for many reasons unrelated to nuclear energy, this is not happening. The trade deficit was destined to arise with or without the nuclear crisis.
This raises the question of whether the propaganda campaign about the balance of trade/energy problem is a deliberate smokescreen behind which the nuclear village is being resurrected. The LDP government wants to promote the export of Japanese nuclear technology and keep a vast portion of the nation’s revenue siphoned off to a parasitic class of rent-seekers. Everyone who has earned a living in nuclear now sees the money flow as an entitlement program, like it is right and fair that taxpayers and ratepayers should continue to support them as if they were deserving pensioners. It doesn’t matter that the nuclear industry serves no purpose and inflicts great harm and risk on society. For them, the only consideration is the continuation of the established flow of money.


2010 Interview with Rosalie Bertell (updated)

2010 Interview with Rosalie Bertell (revised and improved)

The nun, scientist and activist Rosalie Bertell passed away in 2012, and she left a valuable legacy of books, interviews and articles about her work for environmental justice, especially in the anti-nuclear movement.

A brief overview of her career can be found in this obituary. The text below is a transcript of a 2010 interview. I’m republishing it here because the transcript I found on another site contained several obvious errors. It seems to have been done by someone working for Planetary Movement for Planet Earth, a German organization. A few phrases and obscure words were transcribed in ways that made it obvious that they were not easy for a non-native speaker of English to recognize. For example, the words “They are same key-leading agents” were, I think, supposed to be “There are some chelating agents.” There were several problems like this in the transcript. 

After editing the document, I sent my suggested revisions to the site, but I received no reply. Global Research in Canada republished the transcript, but no one there seems to have bothered to fix it up properly, even though they have the expertise to publish professional quality research documents in English. They could have given some indication that they actually read the document carefully before publishing it.

So this is my way of saying thanks to Rosalie. I learned just today that she led a campaign to get the federal and provincial governments to clean up an illegal radioactive waste spill that was discovered in my hometown in 1980. Thanks, Rosie, for looking out for the kids in Scarborough, Ontario who were living around the Malvern Remedial Project on McClure Crescent. It’s just one example of the many battles she fought.

Interview with Rosalie Bertell (at age 81):

Rosalie Bertell and The Future of Planet Earth

I think you did a lot of research about radiation, even when it is a question of low radiation where it is usually said: “Don’t worry, no problem at all”. What have you found out about the effects of low-level radiation in the long run?

Well, my background is as a researcher. And I started by studying the effects of medical diagnostics x-rays, dental x-rays and chest x-rays. We had a huge population that was followed over three years. So we had about 64 million person-years in the study, which is very big. If you have a big population like that and you have measurable x-ray exposures, you can see what happens in the population. I am coming from looking at medical x-rays, and then seeing environmental pollution as bigger.

Many other researchers studied the atomic bomb and they go down to these low levels and said: Oh it’s not anything! So a lot depends on your perspective. When they looked at a large population and started asking what happened when it was exposed to radiation, I think generally the question was wrong. People ask: How many cancers does it cost? I don’t think that is the issue. Because if you look at life in general, the most obvious thing is we grow old. And we grow old in a kind of systematic way and even cancers are old-age diseases. So what I did was to change the question. And I asked: How much medical x-ray would you need to be exposed to so that you get the equivalent of one year of natural aging. That is a very different research question. In order to measure natural aging, I use non-lymphatic leukemia. The rate goes up in a large population like compound interest. From age 15, every year there is a 3% to 4 % increase in the rate of the non-lymphatic leukemia. It is just like when you have money in the bank. Interest is not very big when you are 16 or 20 years old, but by the time you get to 60 it is a large amount of money. Likewise, the rate of this cancer at age 60 is also very high. That is why cancers come in old age.

So I used that as my measuring stick and asked: how much medical x-ray would be the equivalent? I actually measured the aging effect of having dental x-rays or chest x-rays. What was surprising to me was that it was the same amount as you would get as background radiation in a year. So it didn’t make any difference if you got that radiation exposure very fast, because you got a chest x-ray, or whether you had it slowly over a year. You were still, in terms of vulnerability, aged. What that means then practically is if you are in your 20s or 30s and you have an accident and need extensive x-rays, probably you won’t feel much in terms of the difference. However if you are vulnerable, like 60 or 70 years old, you will experience more vulnerability from the x-rays because as a percentage there is a higher rate of incidence. So you are more vulnerable as you get older.

And so I started looking at young people who got leukemia, by which I mean the cases under 45 years of age. And I found within certain groups they are something like six times as likely to get leukemia in that younger age group. And if you have young people with things like diabetes and arthritis, often we associate these ailments with old age too. These conditions are 12 times as likely to be in a young group that has leukemia. So there are some signals to us that a person is prematurely aged, and those people are more vulnerable to radiation exposure.

It’s like they have already moved further on the list. And it’s not exactly medical x-rays, because for example with people who have heart-disease, some are treated more aggressively with respect to x-rays. Some people with heart-disease are x-rayed every year. Others have an x-ray maybe every five or six years and it was the ones who had the x-rays more frequently that developed leukemia. So I started moving people at the age line according to their own personal record of medical diagnostic x-rays. And it explains very many biological phenomena. There seem to be a whole lot of aging processes connected with this.

One of the most remarkable things is very often in radiation studies men’s and women’s radiation measurements are different. I put them on the exposure age which was your ordinary age plus your medical exposure. When I did them with exposure age, many women were the same, and I found that it had much to do with the cultural difference in the use of x-rays. Many young men had x-rays because of sports. They had all these sport injuries. Women don’t start to get x-rays until they are pregnant. And then it is mostly dental. And then you get to the midlife crisis. So there is a difference in the way we treat men and women and boys and girls with x-rays.

Could this relate also to this kind of radioactive radiation which we have through atomic testing or Chernobyl?

When we get into the nuclear industry, whether it is uranium mining or milling, or the reactors, or use of weapons, or even the radioactive waste, you are into particular radiation which we can either breathe in or take in in water and food. It can stay in the body and differentially expose some organs and not other organs. So, you get these small amounts of radiation operating in the body, and you get what I would call “differential aging”. So many of the problems we see come from how long this material stays in the body and where it goes.

So these general reactions of the governments that say, when there is any accident, that there is no danger for the citizens – would you say that this is basically wrong?

It is basically wrong. It is basically wrong because these particles release energy. The DNA carries all your genetic material - or the RNA, which are the messenger molecules which run our body, which make our body work. So we have to ask: how much energy will it take to break them? It only takes 6 to 10 electron-volts of energy to break these big molecules. If you take something like uranium, which is not considered very radioactive, just one atom and one event releasing an alpha-particle is over 4 million electron volts
. You cannot release that in tissue that is living and not do damage. So when you talk probabilities, you are talking about breaking DNA or RNA, destroying the membrane of a cell, or breaking things like the mitochondria which provide energy for the cell.

You can say we do not care about all the damage; we only care if this damage leads to a fatal cancer. So that is the only thing that will be counted. You can start making the probability smaller if you make the end point more particular and say: I don’t care if I get diabetes, I don’t care if my immune system is down, I don’t care for all these other things.

Iraq DU (Depleted Uranium). Can you say something about DU in weapons as they were used during the Iraq war?

Depleted uranium is the waste from the uranium enrichment process, which is a process needed both for a nuclear reactor and for nuclear weapons. In terms of the United States, the greatest amount of waste is depleted uranium. If it is radioactive, it requires a licence to be able to even handle it. And when they do the tests of these weapons in the United States they do it in a superbox, which is totally sealed, in the same way they would experiment with biological warfare and chemical warfare agents. So there is a level of high protection even to test it.

It is chemical warfare because uranium is a heavy metal, a very toxic heavy metal, and it is also radiological warfare, because these things are radioactive. Something special happens to it in the field. It is not just like radioactive dust in a mine or a mill because if you put it in a bullet or a missile, and it hits the target, this friction is enough to set it on fire and it goes to very high temperature. What happens is it forms an aerosol, which is ceramic or glass. It is like pottery, and putting it in an oven makes it ceramic. So what you have are very small particles of glass which are radioactive, which can be breathed, which are light, so they can move a great distance from the point of impact. It is easily measured 40 kilometers from impact.

Because they are glass, they are highly insoluble in water and that is very important because it means they stay in the body longer. To understand that, consider this: If you sit in the sun for 15 minutes is not same as if you sit there for 12 hours. So if you take very soluble uranium, it can pass through the body in 12 hours and be gone. Some of the more insoluble may take two years. But this ceramic stuff looks like it is taking 10 years or more. So right now the veterans from the Gulf War – they were exposed in 1991, this is 1999 (in the research) and they are still excreting between 4 and 5 micrograms of this depleted uranium every day in their urine. That is totally unacceptable. It is no wonder they have medical problems. It does damage to the blood, the bone, the liver, the spleen, the lymph nodes, the kidney. You got this material which is radioactive inside the body for nine years, ten years. That is why you are dealing with such a massive and such a mysterious kind of medical syndrome.

According to the Pentagon, 400,000 American veterans were exposed to depleted uranium: on the map it is the whole southern part of Iraq. So you had 400,000 exposed. They say 200,000 have sought medical care through the Veterans Administration since they have come home. Of that 115,000 have been diagnosed with gulf war syndrome, which means these men are unable to work. Many have died. I have heard various estimates that the number of those that have died reaches upwards to 8,000 to 10,000. The others can’t work. They have chronic fatigue, vomiting, blinding, headache, inability to sleep, respiratory problems, various kinds of pain, cramps – just general disability. They also had an abnormal number of deformed children. And this depleted uranium has been found in seminal fluid. So it is a very serious problem. If I have to say how much of the gulf syndrome would be due to depleted uranium, I would guess about 50% of the damage.

What the military likes about the uranium is it is free. They get it free because it is radioactive waste. And it saves the mining company money because they would have to properly keep it away from the biosphere. They like it because it is free. It is very much like landmines, because it will continue to kill long after the war is over. It will kill differentially the women and the children because women have high risk tissue, breast and uterine tissue which are more radiation-sensitive. Children are growing so they incorporate more in their bones and will have long-term cancer effects. It is also a violation of international law because it has very broad pollution effects that will go across national boundaries. It also makes the idea of “precision-bombing” ludicrous. It is not precision bombing. And I think it also undermines NATO’s claim of this being a humanitarian war because what they are doing in terms of poisoning the land and the people, and the water and the food, is certainly not humanitarian. So it is a complete contradiction to everything they claim to be standing for.

I understand from international lawyers that we do not even need a new convention for it. It is already condemned under international law. The opinion of the human rights tribunal in Geneva (in Strasbourg) is that it is a weapon of “mass and indiscriminate destruction and therefore it is unlawful”. The United Nations has appointed a rapporteur for this issue and they are going to present their brief in August this summer. The World Health Organisation is trying to set up an Investigative Committee to look at Iraq’s claim because they now have six times the rate of childhood cancer, and some of the Iraqi Veterans that were exposed now have between five and six times the lymphoma and leukemia rate of veterans that where not exposed. So the World Health Organisation has asked for funding and volunteers, and wants to do a three-year study in Iraq. All of that supportive information is not in, but it is already clear that it violates international laws, and it certainly contradicts the public relations material coming out on this war.

Severe consequence for future generations?

It will have consequences. I have done a lot of work on the Marshall Islands where they got the fallout from the weapon testing. And the Rongelap people are a people that are dying out, that whole clan.

[Tell us] about the Marshall Islanders and the Seven Generations Rule.

It increases infertility and inability to have children. They went for about five years without even being able to get pregnant. Then they started having spontaneous abortions, what they call jelly-fish-babies. It is a pregnancy of something like a tumour, a child is not formed. It is a molar pregnancy. Then they started having deformed birth. But the birth rate is dramatically down in this whole clan of people, and their next generation is physically less fit. Their birth rate is down and they die younger, in the 30s and 40s. So it is obvious that this whole line of people is dying. It is not going to survive. What I think we are doing is that our generation is making a decision on how many future generations there will be. How much it is shortened depends on how careless we are. So we already shortened future generations because whenever you introduce genetic defect then this line will eventually die out. But some will go two generations, some will go seven generations.

When you are talking about constant low radiation exposure, what you are doing is introducing mistakes into the gene-pool. And those mistakes will eventually turn up by killing that line, that cell line, that species line. The amount of damage determines whether this happens in two generations or in seven generations or 10 generations. So what we are doing by introducing more mistakes into the DNA or the gene pool is we are shortening the number of generations that will be viable on the planet.

We have shortened the number of generations that will follow us. We have shortened that already. So we reduced the viability of living systems on this planet, whether it can recover or not. We don’t have any outside source to get new DNA. So we have the DNA we have, whoever will live on this planet in the future is present right now in the DNA. So if we damage it, we don’t have another place to get it.

There will be no living thing on earth in the future that is not present now in a seed, in a sperm and the ovum of all living plants and animals. So it is all here now. It is not going to come from Mars or somewhere. Living things come from living things. So we carry this very precious seed for the future. And when you damage it you do two things. You produce an organism that is less viable, less harmonized with the environment. At the same time, we are leaving toxic and radioactive waste around. So you are going to have a more hazardous environment and a less capable organism. That is a death syndrome for the species, not only for the individual. It is going to be harder to live. The body will be less able to take stress, and you are increasing the stress at the same time.

We are responsible for what we turn over to the next generation. It is amazing to me because I am the daughter of people that came from Europe, migrated to Canada and the United States for a better life for their children. And it seems that our generation does not care for the future. It is not our heritage. Our heritage was to give something better to our children than what we received. And we seem not to care. I find this very strange, and I think most of our grandparents would turn over in their graves, if they knew what we are doing.

Yes we certainly have to change our way of thinking, and there are very good ways to carry this message. I think we even need a legal protection. We are thinking in terms of a “Seven Generations Law”, which means that for everything that is passed through legislation, you have to answer the question: what will be the impact of this on our great grandchildren’s great grandchildren. You have to answer this question before you do any major planning or make major changes or major laws. It is the North American indigenous peoples’ rule that it has to be safe for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Otherwise it is not acceptable.

There is no real protection from radiation, but you can reduce the effects by some things. Certainly stay in the house with windows closed during these bombing episodes and as long afterwards as possible. But your main concern will be getting it through the food chain. There are some chelating agents. They take inorganic material out of living tissues. One very simple chelating agent and a mild one is distilled water. You can use distilled water to cook your vegetables. If there is any uranium in the vegetables it will go out with the liquid. You can also drink distilled water instead of either bottled or filtered or regular water. Distilled water will do the same thing in the body. It will tend to take out the unwanted inorganic chemicals. Another thing that is available generally is spirulina, which is a blue-green algae you can usually get in a health-food-store. That is also a mild chelating agent and will help to rid the body of some of these toxins, including depleted uranium.

Or try to get rid of it through sweat respiration: saunas. If you get it out through the skin you save the kidneys. The idea is to get it out of the tissue and out of the blood and then out of the body instead of having it go back into storage.

We need to learn to get along with each other because we live on a small planet. If we fight over it, nobody is going to have it. Another thing is: We are straining the natural ability of the earth to regenerate itself. The earth can usually recover within a year. But when we measure what we now take out as resources (fish, food, iron, coal, oil), all these resources which we take for our lifestyle, we are now taking out about 1.33 times what the earth can replenish in a year. So we are running an ecological deficit. In 1992, we were at 1.25, so it is going up. People worry about financial deficit, but that is nothing compared to an ecological deficit. It means constantly reducing the carrying power of the globe. At the same time we are increasing the number of people. If we don’t do something, this will be a global-dimension crisis.

That’s the reason to say: the most important thing to do is the worldwide elimination of the military. The military is one of the most rapid consumers of resources. If you got rid the military globally, you would immediately get rid of the ecological deficit that we are running up every year. This would be buying us time to set up a better way to live on this planet. Yes, we need globalization of the mind. We don’t need mono-culture, but we need to learn how to live together on this earth, how to use conflict resolution in place of military. Yes, we need a police force. Yes, we need laws and courts and that sort of thing. But we don’t need military. Military is an abnormality. It is destroying our culture. It is destroying our environment. It is destroying everything we want. And it is time to get rid of it.

I would maximize the health of this beautiful living planet as much as I could and I would say: I give you this with love. Keep it and give it to as many generations as you can. Life can be good. And life is really a beautiful gift. None of us has asked for it. None of us deserves it. It shouldn’t be something that is a disaster for everybody. It should be something enjoyable and that means that we have to do it differently from the way we are doing it now. For most people life is a terrible thing. People are committing suicide, because it is so ugly for them. That is not life. That is not the way it should be. No other species is going around committing suicide like humans. So there is something very radically wrong with the way we are behaving.