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Thursday, Oct. 14, 2004 06:24 am

Be afraid . . . very afraid

Dr. Helen Caldicott: "You'll be dying in extreme agony, thinking, 'Why didn't I stop this?' "

Longtime peace activist Dr. Helen Caldicott arrived at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington last week with a doomsday message intended to spur students to action.

"You live in a very, very dangerous area, and most people don't even understand that," said Caldicott, referring to the nuclear-power plant that sits a mere 24 miles away in Clinton.

For more than three decades, the Australian-born physician has been a leader in the nuclear-disarmament movement. Her work garnered Caldicott a teaching post at Harvard University and a nomination in 1985 for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today Caldicott, 66, leads the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Nuclear Policy Research Institute. She has written many books, most recently The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush's Military-Industrial Complex.

Caldicott told the assemblage that most people believe that the threat of nuclear attack ended with the Cold War nearly 15 years ago. This is false, she said; the U.S. and Russia still have thousands of hydrogen bombs aimed at each other.

Many of the missiles in these stockpiles remain on hair-trigger alert, she warned. Russia's outdated early-warning system could prompt an accidental nuclear war.

She added that Illinois is home to 11 of the country's 103 nuclear-power plants, a meltdown of any one of which would have catastrophic effects.

"Illinois is the most heavily nuclearized state in the country," she said. "If one of its reactors blows up and the wind blows to Chicago, you'll have 3.5 million people affected."

Caldicott ratcheted up her rhetoric as the nearly two-hour lecture progressed, telling her audience that every area in America with a population exceeding 50,000, including most colleges, is a target of Russian warheads.

"You'll be dying in extreme agony, thinking, 'Why didn't I stop this?'" she said.

Such language has invited criticism of Caldicott as strident, hyperbolic, and overzealous. Clearly she intended to inject her audience with a sense of urgency.

"Younger generations have no concept of nuclear war," said Ralph Dring, an activist with No New Nukes, a Bloomington-based community group working to block plans for a second power plant in Clinton.

Caldicott laid out an ambitious plan to eliminate U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals within five years, and close all U.S. nuclear reactors during the same period.

But at the end of the lecture she openly doubted whether her tough talk had any impact on her young audience.

"Nobody's buying my book," she said. "They all looked bored and ran out."

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