Radiating Revolt

"Irrevy:" An Irreverent, Illustrated View of Nuclear Power By Dr. John W. Gofman Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, $3.95

KILL FOUR, FIVE or maybe even ten people and you're liable to wind up in a peck of trouble. David Berkowitz found that such actions are likely to generate reams of negative publicity.

Contrast the treatment of these miscreants to the reception afforded a gentleman named Reginald H. Jones. You won't find his face plastered across the front page of the New York Daily News. Instead, you might spy him in the back corridors of Capitol Hill, where he is respected as co-chair of the mighty Business Roundtable lobby. His 62-year-old countenance is also familiar in Greenwich, Ct., where his well-to-do neighbors doubtless regard him as an upstanding citizen, hard-working and proud of his son and daughter. Yet in his office in nearby Fairfield, Jones toils quietly as the chief executive of General Electric--a firm that profits from the nation's traffic in nuclear power.

Whether Jones sleeps easily at night is a matter between him and his pharmacist. But reader's of "Irrevy:" An Irreverent, Illustrated View of Nuclear Power may conclude that the nuclear industry is killing people on a scale the Son of Sam could only dream of. Author John W. Gofman asserts that everyone in the industry shares responsibility for the peculiar modern crime of "premeditated random murder." Gofman chairs the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, which has published his collection of talk given at anti-nuclear rallies and in a debate with Edward Teller, famous for his H-bomb paternity.

Recently Gofman spoke at the New York no-nukes rally where Musicians United for Safe Energy entertained a crowd of 200,000. Jackson Browne and company will keep the machinery of dissent from running on empty by raising money with benefit concerts. But the members of the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility are supplying much of the movement's intellectual firepower. Among them are Lewis Mumford, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and four Nobel Laureates: Linus Pauling; James D. Watson; George Wald, Higgins Professor of Biology Emeritus; and Harold Urey.

However, "Irrevy" (an unspeakable title) is a popularization with a list of supporting technical documents to the back pages. Displaying a refreshing lack of academic pomposity, Gofman dedicates the book to the cartoonists whose works entice prospective readers. Perhaps Gofman feels kinship with cartoonists because, like them, he seems constitutionally unable to mince meanings. The urgency that charges his writing springs from his conviction that no quality of radioactivity is harmless. The National Academy of Sciences upheld the 1969 finding of the Gofman-Tamplin Report that no evidence exists for a safe level of radiation. Gofman also cites a Nuclear Regulatory Commission memo that last year urged that the term "permissable dose" be dropped because it is misinterpreted to mean "safe." On the contrary, the memo notes that "some risk is associated with any dose of radiation, however small."


Gofman and his colleague Dr. Tamplin estimated in 1969 that 32,000 additional cancer deaths' would occur each year if the public were exposed to the legal radiation limit, with an additional 100,000 to one million deaths per year resulting several generations later from genetic damage. The National Academy of Sciences objected that their figures were possibly four to ten times too high. This caveat, however, leaves intact still-imposing fatal statistics and Gofman's theory that the number of deaths is directly proportional to the number of persons exposed and the size of the dose each receives. Utility officials are fond of dismissing "minor radiation leaks" as amounting to "just a few chest X-rays." But the hitch is that a few X-rays given to an entire population will kill as many as a high dose of radiation given to a small group. For example, a small dose might pose an acceptable risk for a single person if the chance of its causing cancer were only one in 1000. But if 1000 people receive that same small dose, one of them would be the one to die.

While the number of deaths in as exposed population is a statistical certainy, it is impossible to identify which cancers are due to radiation and not to other causes. For this reason, the nuclear industry can disingenously challenge critics to point to a single radiation fatality. Gofman compares the nuclear and tobacco industries in this respect. Cigarettes may be linked to 90 per cent of lung cancers, but the individual smoker can't prove his own cancer isn't traceable to something else. Of course, unlike the average Harrisburg resident, the smoker chooses to pay his money and take his chances.

Given its acknowledged toxicity, Gofman says that the crucial assumption of nuclear proponents is that we will be able to isolate radiation from the population. The industry customarily excludes its own employees from the "population by a deft act of definition. Undoubtedly injury will be concentrated among the workers handling radioactive materials--in the mines, in transport, and in the plants. But unless the workers are themselves isolated from members of the opposite sex, they will soon pass on their damaged genes to the general population--not a trivial factor, since the industry uses large numbers of people, sometimes called sponges, who are not regular employees, to absorb in a few minutes or hours the legal quota of radiation for three months. The next day, they are tossed back into the "population."

Those who never set foot in a nuclear facility are not safe from direct exposure, either. Gofman makes the simple calculation that a full-fledged nuclear economy of 1000 large plants would produce an extra 1980 cancer deaths annually if only 0.001 per cent of the radiation leaked into the environment. And Gofman considers 99,999 per cent containment perfection to as far be human capability as the nuclear industry considers Gofman to be "beyond the pale of reasonable communication."

The industry must find Gofman's credentials no less shocking than his message. For his Ph.D. dissertation he discovered four chemical isotopes, including uranium 232 and 233, and patented the fissionability of the latter. Next he served as a Group Leader with the Manhattan Project team that isolated the first milligram of plutonium. Then he picked up an M.D. and was appointed Professor of Medical Physics at Berkeley. In the 1960s he was associate Director of the Lawrence Livermore Lab, one of two research centers where all U.S. nuclear weapons are developed.

Despite his own professional standing, Gofman scorns America's "professional class" of "apologists" who care "cut in for a modest share of the spoils" in return for serving the "privilege-elite" in power. He cites the Director of the Livermore Lab who conceded it was Gofman's duty to calculate that 32,000 would die if everyone were exposed to the legally allowed dose of radiation. "What" the director, asked, "makes you think that 32,000 would be too many?" Gofman marshals many such illustrations to answer those who ask how scientists could endorse nuclear technology if it is really as dangerous as its opponents claim. He asserts that a professional's overriding consideration is usually keeping his job.

The real question, though, is why those in power are bent on deploying such a lethal energy source. Gofman says the promise of permanent centralized control allures the elite to nuclear energy.

"Irrevy" exposes how the pro-nuclear forces shape the debate about atomic energy. Gofman's chief strength is his ability to penetrate to the core of an issue through barriers of scientific and judicial jargon. He points out that concentration on the dilemma of waste disposal distracts the public's attention from the equally insoluble and more immediate problem of radiation leakage throughout the nuclear fuel cycle, from mine to mill to reactor. He assails an emphasis on energy conservation through onerous consumer restraint. He says far larger gains are possible from introduction of energy-efficient design to construction and industry. And he prints the straightforward formula linking rems and death that was missing from all the confusing press accounts of radiation at Three Mile Island.

Perhaps most controversially, Gofman advocates "bringing home the Nuremberg Principles." Death spread by nuclear power strikes him as murder of a civilian population, fitting the Nuremberg definition of crimes against humanity. The Nuremberg statement that "Crimes against international law are committed by men, not abstract entities" would therefore open legions of scientists, bureaucrats and others to prosecution. The more practical converse of his view is that citizens who withhold taxes, trespass on reactor sites or otherwise resist nuclear power are entitled to present juries with the reasons for their civil disobedience--a line of defense judges disallow.

Since the publication of his book, Gofman has brought his concept of nuclear "murder" to the trial of protestors who scaled a fence at the Rancho Seco plant in California. Swayed by Gofman's testimony, the jury acquitted one defendant on the grounds that he had reason to believe his crime was necessary to prevent a substantial and immediate danger to life and property.

"Irrevy" affirms the antinuclear slogan "Question Authority" with a convincing fusion of scientific insight and moral outrage. It is true Gofman's ideas about "privilege-elites"--occasionally sends him flying off on odd tangents outside his expertise. These can be provocative, like his argument, in the form of a logical proof, that nuclear war is inevitable. Or they can be simply naive, like his call for slashing the size of government in favor of personal generosity and an ill-defined international "justice movement." But one need not accept all Gofman's opinions to leave his book with a terrible new sense that something is happening out there--and you do know what it is, don't you, Mr. Jones.