Dr. Helen Caldicott

Dr. Helen Caldicott
(Tim Bower for The Boston Globe)
By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / March 20, 2011

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FOR BOSTONIANS of the late ’70s and early ’80s, a lecture by Dr. Helen Caldicott was a bracing, and often viscerally painful, experience. A pediatrician turned anti-nuclear crusader, the Australian-born Caldicott emerged as a national force in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster. Her Harvard credentials and command over medical data on radiation exposure positioned her as a scientific expert; the painful urgency that underlay her every word, the abject fury with which she inveighed that life itself would be surrendered to “Nuclear Madness’’ (the title of her first book), marked her as a provocative activist.

Like many passionate believers, she burned hot. There were glorious highs and bitter lows. There was an Oscar-winning documentary, an awkward visit with Ronald Reagan, a torturous falling-out with much of the liberal scientific community of Boston, who ultimately found her too extreme, too off-putting, to be their leader. When the nuclear freeze movement soared in the mid-’80s, she seemed on the verge of changing the world. Then, when the Soviet Union disappeared without a nuclear war, the freeze movement dissolved and most of its foot soldiers moved on.

She did not. Last week, as the crisis she had long predicted began to unfold in Fukushima, Japan, Caldicott, now 72, was in the midst of a lecture tour to promote her latest book, “Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer.’’ She wrote the book to brace up wobbly liberals who look to nuclear energy as a cure for global warming. In a telephone interview from her Montreal hotel room, Caldicott pointedly rejected any “told you so’’ talk.

“This isn’t about ego, it’s about absolute devastation,’’ she said, in characteristically unsparing terms. “It’s worse than I ever imagined. I never thought six reactors would be at risk plus their cooling pool.’’ She went on to tick off ways in which the radiation released in Japan would poison the world forever.

In her private life, Caldicott dotes on her grandchildren in Newton, but that doesn’t suggest she’s lost her vigor — or her intensity. “In truth, I’m practicing preventative medicine,’’ she said, explaining why she will never stop fighting for a nuclear moratorium. “We have to stop this. There will be more cancers, blood disorders, genetic diseases — particularly in children — forever more, because of the waste.’’