The ability to tap energy at the level of the atom is something
new to our species. Atomic or nuclear energy is of a profoundly
different order than energy that was previously released
exclusively through chemical means.
Let’s begin with the word, nuclear. What is
nuclear? Why do we use this word? Basically, a simple
answer is, nuclear energy is energy that comes from the nucleus.
The nucleus being the core of an atom. Every atom has a tiny core
called the nucleus—very massive. And it’s surrounded
by one or more orbiting electrons. These electrons are negatively
charged and the nucleus itself is positively charged.
Chemical energy involves only the outer electrons. So every
chemical reaction you’ve ever seen portrayed on
television—big explosions—tanks firing things or
cooking in the kitchen—all the changes that take place, all
the industrial changes that take place in chemical
plants—all of it involves only the electrons. It
doesn’t involve the nucleus. Nuclear energy is energy that
comes directly from the nucleus and it is typically millions of
times more powerful than any chemical energy. And that’s
why it’s rather difficult sometimes to grasp the scale of
nuclear energy because things which are extremely tiny can be
giving off an incredible amount of energy.
There are two types of nuclear energy in particular to
discriminate between. The first one is called NUCLEAR FISSION and
that’s the splitting of uranium atoms, for example.
That’s what really gives the juice in a CANDU nuclear
reactor, that’s what really produces the bulk of the heat
that’s used to produce steam to generate electricity. But,
there’s another form of nuclear energy, radiation,
Now it’s very important to understand that these are
different things. Nuclear Fission is a process which can be
controlled. It can be speeded up, it can be slowed down, it can
be stopped, it can be started. Radioactivity cannot be controlled
that way. Nobody knows how to speed it up, how to slow it down,
how to stop it. You can’t shut it off. And that’s why
we have a nuclear waste problem because this
radioactivity—enormous amounts of
radioactivity—cannot be shut off.
There’s the problem in a nutshell. Nobody knows what to do
about it. Although some people think they have an answer,
we’re not sure if that answer is correct or not.
Beginning in 1940, with the project to create an atomic bomb, a
new technology based on the ability to manipulate the chemistry
of uranium, was established with profound consequences unforeseen
at that time. From that beginning, what came to be known as
nuclear power was inextricably linked with nuclear weapons.
The nuclear power industry grew out of the
nuclear bombs that decimated two Japanese cities in August 1945.
These two industries are still inextricably entwined and will
never be separated. The enrichment technology to make new uranium
fuel is identical to that needed to make the uranium bomb that
destroyed Hiroshima, while the plutonium stripped from spent
nuclear fuel at reprocessing plants like Rokkasho is identical to
the plutonium used in the plutonium bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.
In the past 7 decades, the increasing generation of vast amounts
of man-made radioactive matter, inimical to all life on Earth, is
Long-lived radionuclides, such as cesium-137,
are something new to us as a species. They did not exist on
Earth, in any appreciable quantities, during the entire evolution
of complex life. Although they are invisible to our senses, they
are millions of times more poisonous than most of the common
poisons we are familiar with. They cause cancer, leukemia,
genetic mutations, birth defects, malformations and abortions at
concentrations almost below human recognition and comprehension.
They are lethal at the atomic or molecular level.
They emit radiation, invisible forms of matter and energy that we
might compare to fire, because radiation burns and destroys human
tissue. But unlike the fire of fossil fuels, the nuclear fire
that issues forth from radioactive elements cannot be
extinguished. It is not a fire that can be scattered or
suffocated, because it burns at the atomic level – it comes
from the disintegration of single atoms.
Disaster Creep: “Safe Radiation Doses” Belief Began Post-1895
The events that developed in the late 1930s to early 1940s,
becoming the Manhattan Project during World War II, resulted in
the creation of two different designs of atomic bombs detonated
over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945. These
events were preceded by a half-century of mistaken belief that
low dose radiation was not harmful.
In 1895 Wilhelm Röntgen (pronounced
was studying the phenomena accompanying the
passage of an electric current through a gas of extremely low
pressure. On November 8, 1895, he discovered what he called
X-rays as their nature at that time was unknown. In 1898 Marie and Pierre
Curie announced their discovery of radium, an element more
radioactive than uranium.
Use of xrays and what was termed "therapeutic irradiation for
non-malignant conditions" became very popular among physicians
even before the turn of the century. Marking
the one hundredth anniversary of Röntgen’s discovery
in 1995, Dr. Ronald G. Evens described some of the enthusiasm of
those early days:
By the time of the appearance of the first American clinical
diagnostic radiograph [also called roentgenograph and skiagraph],
made at Dartmouth College by Dr. Edwin Frost on February 3, 1896,
physicians were becoming increasingly aware of the extraordinary
potential for the new discovery. By April, “xray
mania” had seized the United States. Xray studios had
opened for “bone portraits,” and countless
photographers and electricians had set up shop as
“skiagraphers.” Thomas Edison became an enthusiast in
1896, and attempted to xray the human brain “at
work”.... Soon, the appearance of xray machines in general
practitioners’ offices across the United States would
underline the notion that a new technology was available to
diagnose any and every ailment. Some physicians even thought it
would eliminate the need for laboratory analysis in medicine.
Medical practitioners believed xrays might
cure almost every affliction. In 1906 Dr. George MacKee, a
dermatologist, wrote about the runaway enthusiasm looking back at
the first ten years:
During those years the rays, to a large extent, were empirically
used and they were tried out on nearly every chronic disease. The
literature was misleading, as it was full of case reports of
wonderful cures, the occasional paper from the pen of a good man
being ignored or overlooked by the average xray operator of the
period and in spite of repeated warnings from capable men, the
“radiomaniacs” held the reins.
In 1963 Dr. John W. Gofman was asked by the Atomic Energy
Commission (AEC) to found and become the first Director of the
Biomedical Research Lab at Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory. As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, where he
received his PhD in Nuclear/Physical Chemistry in 1943, Gofman
worked with Glenn Seaborg (his graduate advisor and co-discoverer
of Plutonium) and Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project,
eventually becoming the leader of the plutonium group at UC
Berkeley. He received his M.D. from UCSF in 1946.
While working in the plutonium project at UC Berkeley, Gofman met
Ernest Lawrence, winner of the
Nobel Prize in Physics 1939,
“for the invention
and development of the cyclotron and for results obtained with
it, especially with regard to artificial radioactive
elements.” In 1952, Lawrence successfully lobbied the AEC
to establish the University of California Lawrence Radiation
Laboratory in Livermore, California. In 1954 Lawrence invited
Gofman into his office to discuss a matter of concern. As Gofman
recounts their meeting,
We were good personal friends.
“I’m worried about the guys out at Livermore,”
he said. “I think they may do some things to harm
themselves. You’re the only person who knows the chemistry
and the medicine and the lab structure. Could you do me a favor
and go out there a day or two a week and just roam around and see
what the hell they’re doing, and see that they do it
safely? If you don’t like anything they’re doing, you
can tell them that your word is my word, that either they change,
or they can leave the lab.”
Lawrence understood and valued the fact that Gofman was
especially qualified in both the hard (nuclear physics) and soft
Gofman was interviewed in
a program on
Human Radiation Experiments Oral Histories
conducted by the Department of Energy.
In addition to the
interview, he submitted the following supplement, providing
context regarding how, in the five decades preceding the
Manhattan Project, the dominant biomedical community erroneously
believed that exposure to low dose ionizing radiation was of no
consequence. Once this bias of missing the boat concerning cancer
induction had been adopted over decades, the imperative to
continue operating with the “no problem from exposure to
low-dose radiation” mindset predominated. This overrode all
voices urging caution or that the medical community’s prior
guidance was wrong.
Supplement to the Oral History of John W. Gofman
March 20, 1995
An Overview in Retrospect of the “1945 + Human Radiation Experiments”
It is my opinion based upon some major studies I have
accomplished in the past year that it is a grave mistake to
consider “human radiation experiments” as a
phenomenon peculiar to the advent of large-scale atomic energy.
In fact, the really significant events were in 1895
(Roentgen’s discovery of the X-Ray), and 1898 (the
Curie’s discovery of radium). The true era of massive human
radiation experimentation began very shortly after
Roentgen’s work, and by the 1940-1945 period, all the
features were in place that ASSURED we would have precisely what
has been found to have been the case in the post-1945 period. But
there really was nothing special about the human experiments
beginning after 1945.
Two Major Facts of Life Which Must Be Conceded Here
1. Humans in recent decades (last couple of hundred years)
operate on the technological imperative. Whatever is discovered
must be applied immediately. There has been no thought, until
recently, about DISASTER CREEP which can occur as a result of
looking only at the short span of time for consequences of
exposure to new technologies.
2. A special example of disaster creep is the inordinately
long latent period before the full flowering of cancers following
exposure to carcinogens such as ionizing radiation. The time is
clearly at least 50 years and it may really be 60 or more years.
THE RESULT: The bulk of cancers from x-radiation and
radium gamma rays simply were not seen, partly because of the
long latency and partly because the idea that long-term follow-up
was essential was clearly dismissed in the half-century after the
THE FALSE CONCLUSION: Doses of 200, 400, 600, and even
over 1000 Roentgens of exposure to partial body radiation were
erroneously exonerated as cancer producers. Millions of cancers
were set in motion in the populations receiving ionizing
radiation in the half-century before the A-bomb.
And this set the stage for all the events recently receiving
Radiation below 500 to 1000 roentgens of exposure was ridiculed
as being of no consequence by failure to look at the follow-up of
When the post-Hiroshima era resulted in the massive Atomic Energy
Bureaucracy, with all the biases built-in from 50 years of having
missed the boat concerning cancer production, WHO WAS PUT IN
CHARGE OF THE PROGRAM ON HEALTH EFFECTS? THE VERY PEOPLE WHO HAD
A TOTAL BIAS IN FAVOR OF “No Problem from Low-Dose
Radiation.” Although there should have been more
thoughtfulness over the uranium miners and dial painters, somehow
the idea became accepted that beta particles and electromagnetic
radiation simply had shown themselves not to be a worry. Alpha
particles, grudgingly yes.
Not that these people were correct. THEY WERE NOT. But I am
describing the atmosphere in which these individuals came to be
the dominant forces in setting up the post-war era of biology and
medicine of irradiation. The bias was overwhelming, and with
their short-sighted look at the problem, it seemed as though they
really believed there was no harm.
That was the EARLY phase post-war. But once the bureaucracy was
set up and the movers and shakers were told, “No problem
with health issues,” the door was opened wide for all sorts
of proposals from nuclear power, massive uses of radionuclides in
medicine and elsewhere, and even all the “Plowshare”
This set up a new phase. Once the biologists had told the high
moguls there was no problem with health effects, all kinds of
wheels were in motion and from there on out, the biomedical
people had to try to have biology conform to their erroneous view
of what the real truth was.
And all hell would break loose if the moguls had been embarrassed
by the poor biological guidance from an inept biomedical
community. And that community, seeing this golden goose of
unlimited funds for research and grants, simply was not in any
mood to say, “Go Slow,” or that our prior guidance
We are now slowly coming off that erroneous mountain—but
because so much prestige and so much funding have gone into the
enterprise, the easiest path is denial that any problem exists at
doses of a few rads. After all these same people just a couple of
decades earlier were telling the Congress and the public that 500
to 1000 rads were “Safe” exposures. I have recently
found even more evidence that this was the prevailing view at the
There is a fundamental rule that exposing persons to a potential
poison, with an assurance of safety when that cannot be assured,
is fraudulent. At the very least, this constitutes human
experimentation, with its Nuremberg connotations. Such
experimentation is commonplace today, with so-called safe
standards being set for “tolerance” doses. The idea
of safe doses was much much more in error for the 50 year period
before the atomic bomb.
Now we can go into the Oral History, but I think failure to
appreciate the 50 years before the a-bomb completely confuses the
persons looking into the ethics of so-called “human
experimentation.” The outcome WAS CRADLED long before the
post-bomb period, and was an inevitable expectation.
End of Prologue
I have felt these conclusions needed to be here. They have
resulted from an in-depth year-long investigation of the extent
to which ionizing radiation, primarily medical x-rays and radium
gamma rays, accounts for the current level of breast-cancers. We
estimate that 75 % of all breast-cancers were and are induced
primarily by medical irradiation. Most of that was in the
horrendous use of fluoroscopy and the equally questionable uses
of radiation in the therapy of benign diseases—from
dermatologists to rheumatologists. There is some REAL human
Given the above, the dangers from further
increases of low dose radiation exposure by official rulings is
of concern to all. Raising the levels of
“permissible” radiation exposure limits are occurring
in the U.S. and Japan. It becomes an ever
more urgent necessity to inform ourselves and others about the
true consequences of creating nuclear weapons and power.
A very positive process to be informed by, sign on to, and
promote is the Montreal Declaration for a Nuclear-Fission-Free World. As
stated in its opening two paragraphs,
As citizens of this planet inspired by the
Second Thematic World Social Forum for a Nuclear-Fission-Free World,
in Montreal from August 8 to August 12, 2016, we are collectively
calling for a mobilization of civil society around the world to
bring about the elimination of all nuclear weapons, to put an end
to the continued mass-production of all high-level nuclear wastes
by phasing out all nuclear reactors, and to bring to a halt all
uranium mining worldwide.
This call goes out to fellow citizens of all countries worldwide
who see the need, whether as an individual or as a member of an
organization, for a nuclear-fission-free world. We are committed
to building a global network of citizens of the world who will
work together, using the internet and social media to overcome
isolation, to provide mutual support and to coordinate the
launching of joint actions for a world free of nuclear fission
technology, whether civilian or military.
Photograph by Robert Del Tredici, “Monument to the Splitting of the Atom, Chelyabinsk,” which commemorates Igor Kurchatov, the father of the Soviet atomic bomb. It shows the splitting of a uranium atom. Large semicircles depict the energy given off at the moment the atom splits. Two hemispheres represent broken pieces of the atom; they are newly formed radioactive materials called `fission products'. Slide Number 4 from “Uranium, Its Uses and Dangers,” (PDF), Presentation by Dr. Gordon Edwards, President, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (www.ccnr.org), presented at Wendake, Quebec, on September 25, 2014 for the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec & Labrador.
See Also: “Born Again: Denial and Eternally Recurring Surprise in Nuclear Waste Management,” a slide presentation by Robert Del Tredici, “in order to capture the human meaning of what we’re dealing with.” May 12, 2011, Naropa University, Boulder Colorado from Rocky Flats, a Call to Guardianship a lecture series on the sterwardship of nuclear waste sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and the Environmental Studies Department of Naropa University.
High Level Nuclear Waste, film presentation by Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, made in Schreiber, Ontario, February 11, 2015. [↩]
Chiho Kaneko, member of Fairewinds Board of Directors; “Demystifying Nuclear Power: Nuclear IS Atomic, Fairewinds Energy Education, 18 Oct 2015. [↩]
Steven Starr, Director, University of Missouri Clinical Laboratory Science Program, Associate, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, former board member and senior scientist for Physicians for Social Responsibility;
“The Implications of Massive Radiation Contamination of Japan with Radioactive Cesium,” Helen Caldicott Foundation Symposium, “The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident,” Co-Sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility, March 11 and 12, 2013. [↩]
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen received the Nobel Prize in Physics 1901 “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him”. [↩]
See “Dec. 21, 1898: The Curies Discover Radium,” by Tony Long, wired.com, 12/21/09 [↩]
Ronald G. Evens, “Roentgen Retrospective: One Hundred Years of a Revolutionary Technology,” J. American Medical Assn. Vol.274, No.11: 912-916. September 20, 1995, pp. 914, 915. [↩]
George M. MacKee, XRays and Radium in the Treatment of Diseases of the Skin, Third Edition. 830 pages. Several chapters have co-authors. (Lea & Febiger, Malvern PA 19355 USA.) 1938, p. 16. [↩]
Chapter 4. John W. Gofman, Medical Physicist. from Leslie Freeman, Nuclear Witnesses: Insiders Speak Out (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981, 1982), p. 86. [↩]
Human Radiation Studies: Remembering The Early Years, Oral History of Dr. John W. Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., conducted December 20, 1994, United States Department of Energy, Office of Human Radiation Experiments, June 1995 [↩]
See, for example: [↩]
“White House Approves Radical Radiation Cleanup Rollback, Civilian Cancer Deaths Expected to Skyrocket Following Radiological Incidents,” Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), April 8, 2013.
“Japan to raise worker emergency radiation exposure limits,” World Nuclear News, May 21, 2015. “Japan’s nuclear regulator is to increase the radiation exposure limit for workers in emergency situations from the current 100 millisieverts (mSv) to 250 mSv. The limit was temporarily raised following the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.”
“Japan: Government to Raise Maximum Annual Radiation Exposure Ahead of Restart of Nuclear Reactors, Mainichi Shimbum, June 30, 2015.
Follow the latest developments on how EPA Moves to Relax US Radiation Standards provided at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.