In Memoriam: Three Giants in the Fight to Reduce Nuclear Risks John Gofman, Paul Leventhal, Ted Taylor

December 31, 2007

One of the greatest “sins” is to be prematurely correct. We have recently lost several great and noble voices of caution about nuclear dangers who had repeatedly committed that unforgivable offense.

In the early 1960s, John Gofman was asked by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to establish the Biomedical Research Division at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to evaluate the health effects from a range of nuclear activities. This was motivated in part by Edward Teller’s desire to have an in-house center that could be used to defend the atmospheric nuclear weapons testing program from calls for a treaty to stop it because of cancers caused by fallout.

The problem was that Dr. Gofman’s research led him to conclude that radiation was far more dangerous than the AEC was publicly conceding. When asked to deliver a scientific paper on the subject at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Gofman and a colleague, Dr. Arthur Tamplin, made the mistake of agreeing to do so. Their paper showed how, if the U.S. population received the level of radiation that AEC regulations deemed permissible, large numbers of cancers would result. The AEC ordered them not to deliver the paper; they declined to be muzzled and went ahead and presented their findings. The AEC then slashed the budget of Dr. Gofman’s center and essentially tried to push him out of Livermore. A world renowned medical researcher, a few years later he returned to teaching medical physics at UC Berkeley.

The controversy led to Congressional attention, which triggered the convening of a special committee of the National Academy of Sciences to judge essentially who was right about radiation risks – the AEC or Dr. John Gofman, a John Henry kind of fight if there ever was one. The AEC thought it had the matter wired, as it exerted huge influence on the Academy as one of its prime funders. And indeed, the panel was heavily packed with people with ties to the AEC.

Yet, at the end of the day, the Academy panel—called the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) – grudgingly found that radiation was more dangerous than the AEC had claimed and that the risks were closer to those Dr. Gofman had identified than those purported by AEC.

In the years since, there have been several more BEIR reports by the Academy on penetrating radiation, each finding radiation more dangerous than the previous one, each getting closer and closer to the estimates made by Gofman. Yet his name was rarely mentioned in the studies, except in an occasional dismissive way. There seemed an irritation to have to concede that he had been right all along.

Over the years, Gofman published numerous independent books on radiation, all showing that the risks were greater than officially conceded. He showed how excessive use of X-rays and now CAT scans in medicine was causing a large number of unnecessary cancers, a conclusion confirmed in a major study in the New England Journal of Medicine that came out the day I am writing this. He showed that in addition to cancers, radiation increased rates of heart disease, a matter now begrudgingly being conceded by the National Academy of Sciences and others. A day hardly goes by without further confirmation of his warnings. He was especially scathing in his criticisms of nuclear power.

We have recently lost others of the great figures in promoting reduction in nuclear risks. Paul Leventhal, founder and President of the Nuclear Control Institute, succumbed at far too young an age this year. For two decades, Paul and Bridge the Gap worked shoulder to shoulder fighting to eliminate the use of weapons-grade uranium in research reactors and other locations where it could readily be stolen or diverted for bomb purposes, winning new regulations to minimize the use of such dangerous material. We worked closely together to require protection against terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants, gaining protections against truck bombs and continuing to push for protections against air attack. Former staff director of the Senate Energy Committee, he helped push through the legislation that split up the Atomic Energy Commission because of its conflict of interest in both promoting and regulating nuclear power. Paul was tireless and fearless, and his departure is a great loss to the movement to secure our world from nuclear dangers.

And another great friend, Dr. Theodore Taylor, one of the giants in trying to prevent nuclear terrorism and proliferation, died a couple of years ago. The subject of a famous John McPhee profile in the New Yorker, Ted had been a Los Alamos weapons designer, responsible for both the largest and smallest atomic bombs in the U.S. arsenal, including a backpack A-bomb known as the “Davy Crockett.” One day, in Washington, DC, preparing to present his latest invention to the Pentagon, he found himself disappointed as he calculated the blast radius for his new design—not enough people would be killed! At that moment he turned; ashamed of what he had been doing, he dedicated the rest of his life to showing how easy it would be to steal nuclear material and make a bomb, how we had to tighten controls and turn away from this terribly risky enterprise.

Now that we face the prospect of a nuclear resurgence, with all its inherent radiation, terrorism, and proliferation risks, one must ask the question: who will fight it? At the moment of the greatest need, we are losing some of our strongest voices. And the answer is clear: we all must now step into the fray. This is a critical time in history. We have lost some of our great warriors. The only way to defeat this nuclear behemoth is for us all to carry on the essential work to which our departed colleagues devoted so much of their lives and talents.

May we rededicate ourselves to this effort.