'Barred' from Port Hope: An interview with Dr. Helen Caldicott

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Renowned Australian physician and anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott has for four decades lectured around the world about the medical dangers inherent in the use of radioactive materials for nuclear energy and weapons. Her work was captured in the 1982 National Film Board of Canada short documentary, If You Love This Planet, which won an Oscar.

Last November, Dr. Caldicott was due to speak in Port Hope, Ont., when she found herself persona non grata there. Cameco, a producer of uranium fuel for nuclear power plants around the world, is a major employer in this town of 16,000 on Lake Ontario.

Dr. Caldicott explains what happened to rabble's news editor Cathryn Atkinson.

Q - I got a one-sentence note that says you were banned from Port Hope in November. Why did you want to go there?

I went to Peterborough two years ago and some people from Port Hope had lunch with me and told me about the situation there, and I was horrified. I told them that if they wanted me to come back and talk about it, I would.  

I came back again in November, specifically to speak in Port Hope, and I was interviewed by the Toronto Star and said the town should be evacuated; it just came out. And all hell broke loose.

The mayor [Linda Thompson ] said I was not to speak in Port Hope. The inn where I was staying prevented me from staying there, and we couldn't have a fancy dinner that the people had set up. The church that was going to sponsor me would not host me

So I was moved to Oshawa, half an hour away, to speak. It was teeming with rain and I thought no one would come, but 360 people turned up, plus 12 TV cameras, so we got a lot of publicity.

And I just walked them through the medical implications of radioactive waste and how that can cause cancer, and damage their genes and the eggs and sperm and the whole thing, and how children are so sensitive to it. I told them you can't remediate this; you can dig it up thereby exposing many more people to radioactive elements. And they're going to bury it within the town boundaries right next to the lake [Lake Ontario], where radiation will leach into the lake for the rest of time, including radium which concentrates in fish. I got roundly attacked by letters to the editor, by the mayor, by the PR man at Cameco...

I first sat back and smiled at all of this because I am used to being attacked. I try and tell the stark truth. That was until the Toronto Star wrote an editorial which said I was just doing a book tour, that I was out to make money, not answering any of the allegations or medical problems that I'd described. I wasn't doing a book tour, my book was published two years ago. I rang the editor and he said I could not have equal space to answer this, but you can write a letter that may or may not be published.

I thought I'd better doing something about this, so using the publicity I'd gained, negative or positive, I decided to come to Ottawa this week and do a national press conference in the Parliament house. And I funded this myself because I felt it was really right to do it.

Q - Is this your first visit to Canada since last fall?

Yes. I came to address this and the whole Canadian uranium situation. It's not being addressed at all.

Q - It sounds like the situation was new to you.

Look, I know that Australia is deeply implicated in uranium, in fact I stopped it for five years by educating their unions. And I know Canada has the most highly enriched natural uranium in the world, and I know it was being exported, but I didn't know the depth of the complicity in the fact that Canadians uranium was used in those three bombs in the Manhattan project, and until '57. I had no idea about that, and that the Canadian government has been complicit with the U.S. government in the nuclear arms race right from the start, and that it is still going on.

People say to me that you've got to stop that because it is one of our two major exports -- wheat and uranium. And I say 'one is for life and one is for death.' You should not export material that will cause malignancy and genetic disease for the rest of time. That's not what you do! You don't make money by inducing disease and death.

Q - What do you think of the nuclear industry in Canada?

As I read voraciously about Canada, I learned about its dark nuclear underbelly. I had no idea that it had provided the uranium for the bombs in America until 1957, including the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, that Cameco is the biggest producer of uranium in the world... [uranium] that can go into the making of bombs now and in the future, in a very fragile world, as we can see with Egypt. Also, that the disease that will accrue from the radioactive waste leaking and contamination of food for the rest of time, will, over time, produce random compulsory genetic engineering, and epidemics of malignancies, particularly in children.

This is absolutely, purely, a medical issue. Port Hope epitomizes the whole nuclear fuel cycle from A to Z -- The refining of uranium all the way through to nuclear power to the production of radioactive waste to the production of nuclear weapons.

I thought it imperative that Canadians be taught about this because they seem to be fairly oblivious to what is going on. They're good people but they need to learn.

Q - And if the information isn't going in the media they are not going to learn...

Dr. Dale Dewar and I co-wrote an article about the whole situation for the Globe and Mail and they won't print it. It's gone to the Ottawa Citizen, and if they turn it down... maybe we will send it to the Toronto Star. It's a really good article, outlining all the medical things that you can't do in a press conference.

This isn't left wing or right wing, this is medicine. It's conservative in that we are trying to conserve life.

Q - What is your message to people in Port Hope?

The message is that there has never been a scientifically validated, peer reviewed, epidemiological study of the people. Never. And the CNSC [ Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission] claims they've got some studies that say the people in Port Hope are healthy. The studies they've done, which I feel are very partial and not very scientific, do indicate a high incidence of brain cancer in women and children, lung cancer in women, leukemia in children, very high incidence of arteriovascular disease, which can be caused by radiation, and the like.

The indication is that such a study should and must be done, number one, by an independent university with independent funding.

The second thing, the urine of all the people in Port Hope must be tested for excretion of uranium and its daughters -- radium and the like. Those people are simply being ignored and it really is a medical... not catastrophe, but [they need to be] researched and treated properly. Those who want to relocate, because many of them are still living on radioactive land, they need to be compensated by the government and the government needs to build a new village.  

Q - That would be quite a reversal for this government.

They've done that up in the north when they've wanted to mine areas. In Australia, they wanted to build a dam and they moved a whole village. It's not unheard of, there are precedents to this. Particularly, people living in such a dangerous place as this.

They're going to do a big cleanup they say, they're going to dig up at least 1.2 million cubic metres of radioactive waste, thereby exposing workers and the people in general, and bury it within the confines of Port Hope because no one else will take it, right next to Lake Ontario and it will leach radium for ever more. It concentrates in fish, and you can't take it. The harbour is extremely radioactive and people are still fishing there!

Q - You're just about to leave the country -- what are you going to do now?

I'm coming back in March. The NDP Party met with me [last week], including Jack Layton... it was a very productive meeting. They are thinking of things to do in Parliament pertaining to this issue. And I also met with someone high up in the Liberal Party, and I hope next time I come to meet with senior members of the Liberal Party.

I did tell this [Liberal] person that if the Liberal Party takes this challenge and rises up and becomes a truly inspirational leader, they could possible win the next election. I am sure of that.

I'm not making money out of this, I paid for this trip myself. I practice medicine, but I've never made much doing this [lecturing], it's just my vocation and I must do it. 

More information on Dr. Caldicott's work can be found by clicking here. Her weekly radio show can be heard by clicking here.

Cathryn Atkinson is the news and features editor of rabble.ca.

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