The original inconvenient truth
There was a time, more than a decade ago, when I fancied myself as something of an expert on nuclear waste issues. As a species, we create lots of radioactive garbage every day, and despite a bunch of malarkey to the contrary, (a) it's not safe to be around it, and (b) the vast majority of it comes from nuclear power plants.
In studying this fascinating subject, I had to learn a little bit about physics and biology, and a lot about big-bucks politics and governmental lying. On the biology side of things, among the big questions were how much radiation one's cells could absorb before they went haywire, and how radioactive a substance needed to be before it posed an intolerable risk.
One of the pioneers in the discussion of the health effects of ionizing radiation was a scientist named John Gofman. Gofman worked on the Manhattan Project, which produced the United States' first atomic bombs during World War II, and in that capacity he developed techniques for creating and capturing plutonium, which nowadays is an essential ingredient in most such weapons.
He then went on to medical school, and as a doctor he made major contributions in the understanding of cholesterol and its relationship to heart disease. In the '60s, however, the federal Atomic Energy Commission hired him to study the health effects of radiation, and it was there that Gofman and his professional partner, Arthur Tamplin, blew some big whistles. Their findings about the health hazards presented by exposure to radioactivity stunned the world, and they changed the casual way in which humans approached such radiation.
Their questioning of the safety of "low level" exposure to radioactivity made them the immediate targets of the nuclear energy and nuclear weapons industries, which embarked on a campaign to discredit them. Those guys know how to play rough. Gofman disputed their assertion that there was a safe "threshold" for exposure to ionizing radiation. He spent the rest of his life confronting the nuclear establishment, and warning the public that government reassurances that everything is fine in Nuke Land are false.
Gofman, who eventually became an emeritus professor at Berkeley, died of heart failure at his San Francisco home last month. He was 88 years old.
Nowadays I spend a lot of time wondering how passive and gullible the American public can be -- how easily it gets conned by our government and by the corporate interests that rule the world. Throughout the Bush Presidency, I have shaken my head just about daily at our folly. I'm sure none of it was a surprise to Gofman, who spent decades decrying the same phenomena in the electricity, medical, and defense arenas. But he spoke out and he kept fighting, and so he serves as an inspiration to the rest of us, who owe it to ourselves to do the same.