Norman Cousins, Walter Selove, Shields Warren

Atomic Radiation and Human Survival

VTR Date: August 24, 1958



August 24, 1958

NBC Television


Moderator: Richard D. Heffner

Guests: Dr. Shields Warren, Dr. Walter Selove, Mr. Norman Cousins


ANNOUNCER: The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today, “Atomic Radiation and Human Survival.” Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, historian, teacher, and author of A Documentary History of the United States.


HEFFNER: Before we begin today’s program I’d like to announce once again that thanks to a decision made by the management of WRCA-TV next week The Open Mind returns to its earlier, every-week status. Next week we move to 1 PM.; we’ll be seen from 1 P.M. to 1:30, but for each week, starting on August the 31st. Now our subject today, “Atomic Radiation and Human Survival” was certainly dramatized two weeks ago by the announcement of a report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Energy that is, Atomic Radiation — and the announcement made this week that probably the United States will cease its nuclear weapons tests in a couple of months. Also the news this week from Denmark and from England, that those two countries have forbidden United States atomic submarines, Nautilus and Skate from entering highly populated ports, dramatizes the whole question before us. Now I’d like to introduce my guests. My first guest is Dr. Shields Warren, who is the scientific director of the Cancer Research Institute of the New England Deaconess Hospital and — most importantly for our subject today — is the United States member of the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. My second guest is Dr. Walter Selove, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Pennsylvania and Chairman of the Radiation Hazards Committee of the Federation of American Scientists. My third guest is Mr. Norman Cousins, editor of “The Saturday Review” and member of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.


Well gentlemen, frequently I begin by saying “As a lay person I’d like to ask this question or that one,” and it’s certainly true today; I’d like to ask you, Dr. Warren: In light of the report that you people put out two weeks ago, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, in light of what you have to say here, what does the announcement of cessation or the probable cessation of American nuclear testing mean for the average citizen?


WARREN: I think for the average citizen, Mr. Heffner, it hasn’t a great deal of significance because the report of the United Nations Scientific Committee has shown that if tests were to continue on, as it states in the summary of the report, until equilibrium is reached with the fallout situation in the biosphere — living matter this would result in a reduction in the total amount of genetically significant radiation the average citizen receives of about 1/30th that he gets from ordinary sources. So as far as the average citizen is concerned, I don’t think this has very great impact.


HEFFNER: Well, I think as one of the average citizens I read so much about all the fuss and the feathers that have been made about stopping the tests, I’d ask, Dr. Selove, as the Chairman of the Radiation Hazards Committee of the American Federation of Scientists why then has there been all this fuss — if cessation means so little?


SELOVE: Well, there was a report prepared by the Radiation Hazards Committee of the Federation of American Scientists about a year ago in which it was emphasized that the disagreement that had been expressed by scientists publicly about fallout effects was not a disagreement as to how much fallout there was or as to what the magnitude of the effects would be; but rather a disagreement as to how important these effects were as compared to, say, the military necessity of developing nuclear weapons. I think there would probably have been very little conflict among scientists at all in their public statements if the manner of release of information on fallout effects by the Atomic Energy Commission had been somewhat different; if there had been no attempt to make these effects appear negligible; no attempt to minimize them. I must say I agree with Dr. Warren that the magnitude of the impact on individual$ is likely to be small — of the fallout effects — when all the numbers are studied. This does not mean that the effects are negligible; I mean a certain number of individuals will be injured by these things. But I believe the radiation effect of fallout from tests has really served as the focus of the fears that people have concerning a nuclear war; and in this sense it is perhaps useful that radiation might now be removed or reduced as the focus of these fears — there are some very much more important reasons for avoiding a nuclear war — there is a very much more important problem of education in people learning what the effects of a large nuclear war would be.


HEFFNER: You mean then that the danger has been political rather than scientific or medical?


SELOVE: I think that would be a fair statement; yes. ·And at the moment it is to me rather discouraging for instance to see a hot, drawn-out discussion in the United States Senate on whether or not we should study the question of surrender or possible surrender to an attacker who would hit us with a very large nuclear attack. I mean the whole concept of surrender in the case of a large-scale nuclear war; just the very term is really outmoded by nuclear war. Talk of surrender or victory just illustrates a complete misconception of what the effects of a nuclear war would be,


HEFFNER: Well, I just asked a question as to whether it’s political rather than scientific or medical because I’d like to make that clear and then stay away, in a sense, for a moment, from the political, because I gather that — well, Mr. Cousins, your committee which has been searching for a sane nuclear policy has put its emphasis not just upon a war but upon the effects upon the individual of continued testing.


COUSINS: Yes, we’ve had a number of things in mind, Mr. Heffner. First of all there is what we do not know. And the United Nations report on radiation makes it clear that we have to respect what we do not know. And our committee felt from the start that it would be dangerous to proceed unless we had answers to certain specific questions. In addition to that was the fact that the Atomic Energy Commission itself disclosed that radioactive strontium has already turned up in the bones of every person in the United States today; and there has been a substantial increase. And we might argue that that, the quantity of radioactive strontium is small; but I would also guess, indeed say, that the proper amount of radioactive strontium in the bones of a human being is no radioactive strontium. Now we proceed from the scientific to the political and also the moral. I emphasize the moral because I think that this is more important than either the scientific or the political. I do not believe that the United States or any nation in the world has the right to contaminate the air and the land that belongs to other people. And we can take whatever risks we wish to ourselves if we can confine the fallout to our own land. The same would hold true of any other country. But we do not have the right, nor does any other country have the right, to take risks with other people without their consent. And this is a deeply moral question. And we, our committee, objected to the fact that we were proceeding without respect or even without debate on these principal questions.


HEFFNER: Yes, but you say without respect or without debate on these principal questions concerning other people; again I would ask the question: what about us right here in this country? I gather from reports that people who live in the northeastern area of the United States are bound to — may I use the words — “suffer more” from fallout, or be affected more by fallout than people in other areas of the nation. If this is the case, why is cessation suet an unimportant fact for the average citizen? This, I think, has to be explained for a layperson such as myself.


WARREN: There are two angles of this that I would like to speak to, if I may, Mr. Heffner. One, I’d like to pick up a point that was made by Mr. Cousins, which is a very important one there are many thing about radiation and about atomic energy that we do not know and we must learn. I believe firmly that the way to answer a problem is not simply to run away from it or shove it into the drawer, but is to try to find what the answers to that problem really are: We must work actively in the research field to learn what the effects of radiation are, particularly at low levels, if this can- possibly be worked out — and also to learn how to counteract them. And I believe, this is within the range of possibility as far as medical science is concerned. It is of also very real importance to keep in mind that with the rapidly growing population of the earth we are rapidly drawing to the end of our traditional type of natural resources the carbonaceous fuels. And if we are to support a population in the future it looks as though we must turn to a major use of atomic energy. There is no point in our condemning people in the generations to come to starvation, to misery, simply for the sake of a guarding against a somewhat equivocal risk, although specific to a limited number of individuals at the present time. I feel that we must squarely face this problem from the research angle; we have atomic energy and just as in the mythical times when Prometheus brought fire from heaven there were dire effects as well as the very beneficent effects that we all need. So I think we must view atomic energy and be sure that we recognize the advantages, the intense needs, that we recognize and identify the hazards and do our best to avoid them,


COUSINS: Yes, well, Dr. Warren, our committee raised no objection to experimentation and research in connection with the peacetime uses of atomic energy; Our committee was concerned with one thing, which was the continuation of nuclear explosions which produced an increase in the amount of radioactive materials in the atmosphere which could not be controlled and which did not contribute to the kind of research we’re talking about. I agree with you completely that one of the main answers to the long-term problem of humankind today has to be in the general area of atomic energy. But we did not feel that nuclear explosions, the bombs going off, necessarily contributed to that end.


HEFFNER: Let me ask Dr. Warren this question: as a scientist, as one who has on the U.N, committee participated in its work arid its discoveries: would you yourself vote for or against cessation in terms of its effects, the effects of atomic radiation upon humankind?


WARREN: This is a very hard question to answer, Mr. Heffner, because one has to have for the experimental development of fusion, I believe, large-scale experimentation. And I think we must bear in mind that along with the testing of weapons along with the nuclear explosions that are being carried out, -a tremendous amount of advance in the field of basic knowledge, of nuclear energy, is being made. Things can be done in the field that cannot be done in the laboratory. Dr. Selove, I believe, is more competent, however, to answer that question than I.


HEFFNER: How would you answer it, Dr. Selove?


SELOVE: Well, I think certainly some things can be learned from test explosions, as Dr. Warren says, which cannot be learned in the laboratory. I think it’s also clear that under an agreement to cease weapons tests there could perfectly well be a provision–and there should be such a provision–to continue explosions for whatever peaceful purposes may exist. These explosions could be registered with an appropriate international agency, for example. If I may, I’d like to make a few remarks on something Mr. Cousins said a few moments ago. Of course Mr. Cousins is completely right, and all of us would agree with him, that it’s a most serious matter for any government to carry on activities such as nuclear explosions which contaminate the atmosphere and the food of other countries. At the same time it seems to me that in the practical realities of the world in which we have been living so far it’s necessary in making a decision about weapons tests and weapons development, to balance the factors on both sides. There certainly have been strong military reasons, and there continue to be such reasons, for carrying on weapons development. And from the point of view that the development of these weapons has contributed to the security of this country in the world in which we live it’s a very difficult decision to make as to whether to go ahead with weapons tests when they do contaminate the food of other nations; but it seems to me the people of this country would very likely have agreed that this action should be taken. Now at the same time I think it has to be pointed out that while the development of nuclear weapons may have contributed to the short-term security of this country, it gives us no long-term security whatsoever. And the present arguments — the arguments that have recently been given — for the continuation of weapons tests — I say this in clear distinction from the continuation of explosions for peaceful purposes — the reasons given for the continuation of weapons tests, some of these reasons stand up under examination; some do not at all. And if I might just mention my view on one of the reasons, which does not stand examination, I would say that the idea of developing nuclear weapons for defensive purposes is really not very well based; that if one asks for the statements of competent authorities in the missile field or the anti-missile field or anti-missile missiles, then you find these people saying that they cannot see that in the next five years or ten years there can be any effective defense against a missile attack with long-range missiles. Therefore, to say that we have to develop defensive weapons Bo as to have an effective defense against a missile attack is really a fraudulent argument.


COUSINS: You know, one of the things I like about this program, Dr. Selove, is that generally we don’t develop debate; and it’s a nice thing to be able to show that you can put on an interesting program without getting into controversy. But I’d like to depart from that and debate a bit if I may.




HEFFNER: That’s within the ground rules, Mr. Cousins.


COUSINS: I can’t accept your idea of the practical reality. I think that the practical reality comes into conflict with the moral reality, which is even greater.  Now you say that if it’s in our vital interest to proceed with testing regardless of what happens to other countries, that we ought to go ahead, I just can’t see this. Now I would ask how you would feel if this country did not happen to be a nuclear nation, but other countries were involved in testing; and then we discovered that our land was being affected, and that radioactive titanium was getting into the bones of our children. And that our milk was being affected. Can you imagine the outcry that would go up in this country if the Soviet Union says: “Sorry, we’re going to continue our testing because it’s in our –or rather, their own — vital interests?” I think we would send up a cry that would pierce the sky. I think it’s about time that this country realized that other nations have rights too; and we cannot under any circumstances proceed regardless of the rights of other peoples. If we do that, that does not contribute to our security. I can’t see that as a practical reality. I think that if anything, the easiest way for this country to lose its security is to alienate itself from the goodwill of mankind.


SELOVE: Of course, Mr. Cousins, I agree with you that there is a conflict between what I would call practical realities and what you speak of as immoral realities. I think we probably differ as to whether moral realities would have been enough to protect this country in the past several years. Let us be clear: I am in favor of stopping tests at this point. But I think that the question of continuation of tests in the preceding few years has had to be decided on a balance between the military advantages and the disadvantages, which include alienating other countries as well as contaminating their food. I think for a person living in Japan the question of contamination is likely to be quite a serious one. Japan, for various reasons, that it receives fallout from both Russia and the United States in large amounts, that it has soil that’s very deficient in calcium, that a large part of the diet is rice, which means people don’t obtain the benefit of the discrimination that a cow shows between milk–that is, between strontium and calcium–; for these various reasons the Japanese have a strontium content going into their bones that is very considerably higher, perhaps a factor of ten higher, even than it is in most parts of this country, which itself has moderately high levels compared to the rest of the world.


Now in spite of all these reasons I believe that if you took– I may be wrong–that if you took a group of individuals in this country and confronted them with the arguments on both sides of the question of continuing tests, and said–and made the arguments in the careful way in which they could be made–that absolutely the life of this country in the past few years may have depended to a considerable extent on having nuclear weapons in our arsenal. And I think you would find that the people would probably support–


COUSINS: (interrupting) Except for one thing. You see, I’ve got a hunch that the Soviet—


SELOVE: (interrupting; laughing) I hate to argue on this side…


COUSINS: (continuing} — but I believe that the Soviet Union feels it can win in the world at precisely the time that it represents the majority of the world’s people, at precisely the point where it believes it can separate the United States from the goodwill and support of the majority of the world’s peoples. Now if that is the case, then it becomes important for us to recognize that our security depends not on bombs alone, but on our ability to stay close to the rest of the world.


HEFFNER: Yes, but look what’s happened in this discussion: we began by asking two scientists and a lay person who is very much involved in this question about some of the more scientific and then some of the broader implications; and we seem always to come back to the scientists also arguing in terms of the political implications, the world implications. How are you going to answer the question for me about the effects? You say, Dr. Selove, that you are for cessation now. And I ask: aside from the political implications, why? Or only for political implications? Is this a fair question?


SELOVE: Sure. I would say I think the radiation effects, the fallout effects, from nuclear tests represent an aspect of nuclear testing which has to be considered, which has to be given a certain moderate degree of weight–it’s not a negligible factor; I believe, however, it’s not the dominating factor.


HEFFNER: I understand that; and you’ve made that point. But what is the factor? How could you summarize this factor in–?


SELOVE: You mean why do I believe tests should be stopped?




SELOVE: I believe that the cessation of tests represents one of the most practical, if not the most practical, first step in a series of steps which I hope will take place which will increase mutual understanding and confidence between nations.


HEFFNER: I’m sorry; this is my fault. I misunderstood your last question. I mean in scientific terms, in terms of the effects upon human heredity, upon the soma, or why are you concerned for the cessation of tests?


SELOVE: I’ve tried to say I think radiation is an important effect that accompanies tests but not the dominant one.


HEFFNER: Well, Dr. Warren, let me put the question to you, too. Would you like to comment?


WARREN: I think I would like to say here that there is no question but what radiation is in the long run injurious, and we want to keep the levels of radiation as low as we can. For this reason, cutting down on radioactive fallout is unquestionably a desirable thing considered only by itself. It must, however, be considered in all aspects; and just as this discussion has tended to drift from the purely scientific to the international to the social to the moral, the scientist cannot keep apart from these other aspects of the question. We can, however, get together the actual facts, as nearly as they can be determined, as has been done in this report to the U.N. of the Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. So that the people of the world can see what one phase of the problem is and weigh that one phase in relation to other problems. One of the things that we must do in any case, because whether atomic energy is used in warfare or used in industry, it is something that we must live with. We have got to learn how to control the problems of radiation; we have got to learn how to live with a minimal amount of radiation, we hope, but nonetheless to live with it.


HEFFNER: Well, of course one of the things that bothered me was a clipping that we have here from the N.Y. Times of July, 1957 which–a year after the National Academy of Sciences made its report, its first report on the genetic effect of radiation–there was an estimate that increased by one-third the amount of radiation received by the average person up to the age 30 from X-rays, medical X-rays. In other words, this had been a mistake; this had been an estimate that was quite low. And so I wonder whether at this point the question of the medical, biological effects of radiation doesn’t have to be very much on our minds. For instance, tomorrow morning the Nautilus is going to come steaming up New York Harbor. All right, I’m concerned about that. You may be back in Boston by that time, Dr. Warren; you may be in Pennsylvania, Dr. Selove; Mr. Cousins and I will probably be here. What kind of chance is being taken now? Why did the Danes and the British refuse to have atomic submarines enter populous harbors? Is this something that scientists could throw some light on–entirely aside from the political implications?


WARREN: I can’t answer why the Danes or the United Kingdom acted as they did.; I myself would have no concern in traveling on the Nautilus or being adjacent to a harbor into which the Nautilus came. It is conceivable that with some dire accident, a collision for example, that there might be local contamination of the harbor waters for a time. But I see a risk which is far leas than the risk that I took when I came down here by train, and infinitely–well, infinitely is too strong–but even still less than by coming in a taxicab from the station here.


HEFFNER: Mr. Cousins.


COUSINS: Before this program ends I’d like to agree with Mr. Selove on one point: the basic thing right now is not so much the cessation of nuclear testing but the abolition and control of nuclear weapons them­selves. The cessation must be regarded as a first step; we have many things to do before we can be secure. And it seems to me that the security of the United States, in addition to depending on the goodwill support of the majority of the world’s peoples, depends not so much on armed supremacy but on arms control. And it’s in the direction today’s nuclear arms control, taking into account the nature of nuclear weapons, that I believe we must now all move, and concentrate.


WARREN: You mean this is the next step, once cessation is established.


COUSINS: I would hope so.


SELOVE: I would say in agreement with Mr. Cousins that the one point I would disagree with in the statement Dr. Warren just made is that we have to learn to live with nuclear weapons in war. I think we have to learn instead to understand what the effect of nuclear weapons in war will be; and then the peoples of the world will make it impossible to have a large nuclear war. I think we have to reach that.


HEFFNER: Well, I think we probably helped some people understand what the effect of nuclear testing is in peacetime, as well as in war. Thank you very much, Dr. Warren, Dr. Selove, Mr. Cousins.


We’ll be back with THE OPEN MIND at a different time next week; starting next week we’ll be seen every Sunday at 1 PM, from 1 until 1:30 P.M. Our subject next week will be “The Fate of Western Values”. See you then at 1 PM.