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NUCLEAR GUARDIANSHIP FORUM, On The Responsible Care of Radioactive Materials,
Issue # 3, Spring 1994, p. 8.
Dr. John Gofman, A Nuclear Researcher
Who Refuses To Lie About Radiation Dangers

by Anthony Phillipson

John William Gofman, MD. PhD., is professor emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley, and lecturer in the Department of Medicine, U.C. San Francisco. While getting his Ph.D. in physics at Berkeley in the 1940s, Gofman proved the slow and fast neutron fissionability of Uranium-233. At the request of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Gofman helped produce plutonium (not even a quarter of a milligram existed at that time) for the Manhattan Project. He got his M.D. from UCSF in 1946 (winning the Gold-headed Cane Award, presented to the senior who most fully personifies a "true physician") and began research on coronary heart disease.

Since then his research work has included the fields of radiochemistry, cancer and chromosomes, and radiation hazards. He has taught for many years in the fields of radio isotopes and radiobiology. He has written several books on the health consequences of exposure to ionizing radiation.

The following article is based on a four hour interview with Dr. Gofman by Margaret M. Pavel and Anthony Phillipson in January, 1994 and on Gofman's speech on receiving the Right Livelihood Award in 1992.

In 1963 the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, later renamed as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC) and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory which the AEC sponsored, asked Dr. Gofman and his colleague Dr. Arthur Tamplin to study the health effects of radiation. In 1970 they were concerned that there was no threshold level below which doses of ionizing radiation to the human body were safe. By 1990 Dr. Gofman had proved this beyond reasonable doubt. In other words, there is no safe dose. Even one track of ionizing radiation passing through the chromosomes in a cell's nucleus can cause damage, leading to cancer, leukemia or genetic defects.

a trustworthy data base
is a sacred obligation to humanity.

Gofman and Tamplin concluded that the 'permissible' extra dose from proposed nuclear power plants in the United States, if reached, would cause approximately 32,000 extra cases of fatal cancer each year. (Subsequent evidence indicates that this estimate is too low.) Though they had not opposed nuclear power at the beginning of the research, they now proposed a five year moratorium in constructing any new plants to allow for public debate and some serious thinking.

The AEC regarded these findings as heretical: such results would jeopardize the nuclear industry. Unlike some scientists, who, to protect their careers and programs, compromised their professional integrity, Gofman refused to dismiss his research results. In 1972 the AEC stopped his funding and the research project was ended. He returned to his original office at the University of California at Berkeley and to research work on cancer and chromosomes. He also took time to assist in lawsuits; for example, he was a lead witness in the Karen Silkwood case and in the trial of the Downwinders in Utah in 1982-84 .

He became increasingly unhappy that what he did not do on the health effects of radiation did not get done. Only a small coterie was doing research, Rosalie Bertell, Ernest Sternglass, Alice Stewart, and all had difficulty getting funded. Since 1985 he has devoted his time to research and writing, and in reply to the many trial-related requests from lawyers, activists and others, Gofman says "When enough people wake up so that a lot of people are doing research and writing on the health effects of radiation, then I'll be available to do lawsuits." Meanwhile his papers did not get published in professional journals, while researchers whose papers supported safe dose levels appeared extensively. So Gofman decided to publish his own books and papers on the subject through the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility (CNR). Among these are his elaboration of the Law of Concentrated Benefit Over Diffuse Injury (that diffuse injury processes get ignored when industries look at costs versus benefits) and his specification of essential Rules for Research.

How Not To Get Reliable Data

Gofman recognizes how easy it is to slant research on the effects of radiation, and how important it is to be meticulous in discovering these effects. The study of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors and those affected by the Chernobyl accident provide essential data bases for the effects of ionizing radiation on human health. If such research work is poorly designed or biased, false conclusions will enter the textbooks and become medical lore for very many years to come. The resulting misinformation can lead to untold human suffering, magnified over time. Thus a trustworthy data base is a sacred obligation to humanity.

In the cases of both the atomic bomb survivors and the Chernobyl study, he has shown how standard rules of research have been violated. For example, in 1986 the original groupings (called cohorts) of the atomic bomb survivors were shuffled. Doing such a shuffle of data allows you to arrange for results you like. Gofman has shown the effects of this shuffle using the old and new data bases. The new data base suggests that low dose radiation is less harmful per dose-unit than high dose radiation. The original data base suggests the opposite. The retroactively altered data base can be construed as consistent with threshold speculations, whereas the unaltered data base argues strongly against any "safe dose".

These comparisons hold true for cases of both cancer and mental retardation (the latter caused by the bomb radiation to fetuses in the womb).


Gofman describes the Department of Energy's wish list which is to sell to the public the following beliefs:

Gofman researched a specific example from medical history. In Nova Scotia and Massachusetts fluoroscopy was used to monitor pneumo-thorax treatment of women with tuberculosis in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In 1965 Dr. Ian McKenzie of Nova Scotia discovered that breast cancer was caused by these hundreds of treatments. Yet the low dose of each individual exposure was deemed safe at the time. Fifteen to 20 years later breast cancer became epidemic among these women.

The promoters of
[Japan's Plutonium] propaganda
deserve to be indicted
before the World Court.


Gofman recommends the establishment of watchdog committees, with the authority to check that every rule of research is obeyed, to "blow the whistle" over questionable practices, and to publish their own views as an integral part of every document. If no cover up is intended, there should be no resistance to this oversight.

These proposed committees let everyone win. They liberate researchers from humiliating pressure, so they can follow their best principles and obey all rules of research. At present there are no such oversight committees for any pollutants, but they can be established through public insistence that will have to come from the grassroots.

Watchdog committees are needed, of course, in many areas. Take the Japanese nuclear industry's advertising propaganda that plutonium is safe for you; it prepares the public for reprocessing plants and fast breeder reactors, which increase the risk of disseminating plutonium by a factor of 1,000, and it does this at a time when we know that a single particle of plutonium can cause lung cancer. Gofman says that promoters of this propaganda deserve to be indicted before the World Court. To set up such committees the following steps must be taken:

Who would participate? Gofman predicts that many fine scientists would apply, because service on a watchdog committee will be an honored and rewarded occupation. It will be a proud public service on behalf of accurate research, making honorable behavior easier for everyone.

Service on a watchdog committee
will be an honored
and rewarded occupation.

Funding watchdog committees: Gofman suggests that within the budget for any data base study, a modest fraction be set aside to fund the watchdog committee. Its costs should be understood in terms of the many millions of lives that are endangered without it.

John Gofman can be contacted through the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, Inc., P.O. Box 421993, San Francisco, CA 94142 USA. 415/776-8299.

Anthony Phillipson, a former uranium exploration geologist for British Petroleum Co. Ltd., has a graduate degree in holistic psychology, is a deep ecologist and an educator.

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