(Two and a half years after Dr. Schweitzer gave his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, leaders and scientists from many countries chose Dr. Schweitzer to be their voice against the nuclear danger and it was Norman Cousins who pressured him to do so. On April 24, 1957, Dr. Schweitzer’s statement, “Declaration of Conscience,” was broadcast worldwide from Oslo, Norway, under the auspices of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the consideration of the world’s peoples.)
Since March 1, 1954 hydrogen bombs have been tested by the United States at the Pacific island of Bikini in the Marshall group and by Soviet Russia in Siberia. We know that testing of atomic weapons is something quite different from testing of non-atomic ones. Earlier, when a new type of giant gun had been tested, the matter ended with the detonation. After the explosion of a hydrogen bomb that is not the case. Something remains in the air, namely, an incalculable number of radioactive particles, emitting radioactive rays. This was also the case with the uranium bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and those which were subsequently tested. However, because these bombs were of smaller size and less effectiveness compared with the hydrogen bombs, not much attention was given to this fact.
Since radioactive rays of sufficient amount and strength have harmful effects on the human body, it must be considered whether the radiation resulting from the hydrogen explosions that have already taken place represents a danger which would increase with new explosions.
In the course of the three-and-a-half years that have passed since then [the test explosions of the early hydrogen bombs] representatives of the physical and medical sciences have been studying the problem. Observations on the distribution, origin, and nature of radiation have been made. The processes through which the human body is harmfully affected have been analyzed. The material collected, although far from complete, allows us to draw the conclusion that radiation resulting from the explosions which have already taken place represents a danger to the human race – a danger not to be underrated – and that further explosions of atomic bombs will increase this danger to an alarming extent.
This conclusion has repeatedly been expressed, especially during the last few months. However, it has not, strange to say, influenced public opinion to the extent that one might have expected. Individuals and peoples have not been aroused to give to this danger the attention which it unfortunately deserves. It must be demonstrated and made clear to them.
I raise my voice, together with those of others who have lately felt it their duty to act, through speaking and writing, in warning of the danger. My age and the generous understanding so many people have shown of my work permit me to hope that my appeal may contribute to the preparing of the way for the insights so urgently needed.
My thanks go to the radio station in Oslo, the city of the Nobel Peace Prize, for making it possible for that which I feel I have to say to reach far-off places.
What is radioactivity?
Radioactivity consists of rays differing from those of light in being invisible and in being able to ass not only through glass but also through thin metal discs and through layers of cell tissue in the human and animal bodies. Rays of this kind were first discovered in 1895 by the physicist Wilhelm Roentgen of Munich, and were named after him.
In 1896 the French physicist Henri Becquerel demonstrated that rays of this kind occur in nature. They are emitted from uranium, an element known since 1786.
In 1898 Pierre Curie and his wife discovered in the mineral pitchblende, a uranium ore, the strongly radioactive element radium.
The joy caused by the fact that such rays were at the disposal of humanity was at first unmixed. It appeared that they influence the relatively rapidly growing and relatively rapidly decaying cells of malignant tumors and sarcomas. If exposed to these rays repeatedly for a longer period, some of the terrible neoplasms can be destroyed.
After a time it was found, however, that the destruction of cancer cells does not always mean the cure of cancer and also, that the normal cells of the body may be seriously damaged if long exposed to radioactivity.
When Mme. Curie, after having handled uranium ore for four years, finally held the first gram of radium in her hand there appeared abrasions in the skin which no treatment could cure. With the years she grew steadily sicker from a disease caused by radioactive rays which damaged her bone marrow and through this her blood. In 1934 death put an end to her suffering.
Even so, for many years we were not aware of the grave risks involved in X-rays to those constantly exposed to them. Through operating X-ray apparatus thousands of doctors and nurses have incurred incurable diseases.
Radioactive rays are material things. Through them the radioactive element constantly and forcefully emits tiny particles of itself. There are three kinds. They are named after the three first letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha, beta, and gamma. The gamma rays are the hardest ones and have the strongest effect.
The reasons why elements emit radioactive rays is that they are in a continuous state of decaying. The radioactivity is the energy liberated little by little. There are other elements besides uranium and radium which are radioactive. To the radiation from the elements in the earth is added some radiation from space. Fortunately, the air mass 400 kilometers high, that surrounds our earth, protects us against this radiation. Only a very small fraction of it reaches us.
We are, then, constantly being exposed to radioactive radiation coming from the earth and from space. It is so weak, however, that it does not hurt us. Stronger sources of radiation, as for instance X-ray machines and exposed radium, have, as we know, harmful effects if one is exposed to them for some time.
The radioactive rays are, as I said, invisible. How can we tell that they are there and how strong they are?
Thanks to the German physicist Hans Geiger, who died in 1945 as a victim to X-rays, we have an instrument which makes that possible. This instrument is called the Geiger counter; it consists of a metal tube containing rarefied air. In it are two metal electrodes between which there is a high potential. Radioactive rays from the outside affect the tube and release a discharge between the two electrodes. The stronger the radiation the quicker the discharges follow one another. A small device connected to the tube makes the discharge audible. The Geiger counter performs a veritable drum-roll when the discharges are strong.
There are two kinds of atom bomb – uranium bombs and hydrogen bombs. The effect of a uranium bomb is due to a process which liberates energy through the fission of uranium. In the hydrogen bomb the liberation of energy is the result of the transformation of hydrogen into helium.
It is interesting to note that this latter process is similar to that which takes place in the center of the sun, supplying it with the self-renewing energy which it emits in the form of light and heat.
In principle, the effect of both bombs is the same. But, according to various estimates the effect of one of the latest hydrogen bombs is 2,000 times stronger than the one which was dropped on Hiroshima.
To these two bombs has recently been added the cobalt bomb, a kind of super atom-bomb. It is a hydrogen bomb surrounded by a layer of cobalt. The effect of this bomb is estimated to be many times stronger than that of hydrogen bombs that have been made so far.
The explosion of an atom bomb creates an inconceivably large number of exceedingly small particles of radioactive elements which decay like uranium or radium. Some of these particles decay very quickly, others more slowly, and some of them extraordinarily slowly. The strongest of these elements cease to exist only ten seconds after the detonation of the bomb. But in this short time they may have killed a great number of people in a circumference of several miles.
What remains are the less powerful elements. In out time it is with these we have to contend. It is of the danger arising from the radioactive rays emitted by these elements that we must be aware.
Of these elements some exit for hours, some for weeks, or months, or years, or millions of years, undergoing continuous decay. They float in the higher strata of air as clouds of radioactive dust. The heavy particles fall down first. The lighter ones will stay in the air for a longer time or come down with rain or snow. How long it will take before everything carried up in the air by the explosions which have taken place till now has disappeared no one can say with any certainty. According to some estimates, this will be the case not earlier than thirty or forty years from now.
When I was a boy I witnessed how dust hurled into the air from the explosion in 1883 of the island Krakatoa in the Sunda group was noticeable for two years afterwards to such an extent that sunsets were given extraordinary splendor by it.
What we can state with certainty, however, is that the radioactive clouds will constantly be carried by the winds around the globe and that some of the dust, by its own weight, or by being brought down by rain, snow, mist, and dew, little by little, will fall down on the hard surface of the earth, into the rivers, and into the oceans.
Of what nature are these radioactive elements, particles of which were carried up in the air by the explosion of atom bombs and which are now falling down again?
They are strange variants of the usual non-radioactive elements. They have the same chemical properties but a different atomic weight. Their names are always accompanied by their atomic weights. The same element can occur in several radioactive variants. Besides Iodine 131, which lives for sixteen days only, we have Iodine 129, which lives for 200,000,000 years.
Dangerous elements of this kind are: Phosphorus 32, Calcium 45, Iodine 131, Iron 55, Bismuth 210, Plutonium 239, Cerium 144, Strontium 89, and Cesium 137. If the hydrogen bomb is covered by cobalt, Cobalt 60 must be added to the list.
Particularly dangerous are the elements combining long life with a relatively strong efficient radiation. Among them Strontium 90 takes the first place. It is present in very large amounts in the radioactive dust. Cobalt 60 must also be mentioned as particularly dangerous.
The radioactivity in the air, increased through these elements, will not harm us from the outside, not being strong enough to penetrate the skin. It is another matter with respiration, through which radioactive elements can enter our bodies. But the danger which has to be stressed above all the others is the one which arises from our drinking radioactive water and our eating radioactive food as a consequence of the increased radioactivity in the air.
Following the explosions of Bikini and Siberia rain falling over Japan has, from time to time, been so radioactive that the water from it cannot be drunk. Not only that: Reports of radioactive rainfall are coming from all parts of the world where analyses have recently been made. In several places the water has proved to be so radioactive that it was unfit for drinking.
Well-water becomes radioactive to any considerable extent only after longer periods of heavy rainfall.
Wherever radioactive rainwater is found the soil is also radioactive – and in a higher degree. The soil is made radioactive not only by the downpour, but also from radioactive dust falling on it. And with the soil the vegetation will also have become radioactive. The radioactive elements deposited in the soil pass into the plants, where they are stored. This is of importance, for as a result of this process it may be the case that we are threatened by a considerable amount of radioactive elements.
The radioactive elements in grass, when eaten by animals whose meat is used for food, will be absorbed and stored in our bodies.
In the case of cows grazing on contaminated soil, the absorption is affected when we drink their milk. In that way, small children run an especially dangerous risk of absorbing radioactive elements.
When we eat contaminated cheese and fruits the radioactive elements stored in them are transferred to us.
What this storing of radioactive material implies is clearly demonstrated by the observations made when, on one occasion, the radioactivity of the Columbia River in North America was analyzed. The radioactivity was caused by the atomic plants at Hanford, which produce plutonium for atomic bombs and which empty their waste water into the river. The radioactivity of the river water was insignificant. But the radioactivity of the river plankton was 2,000 times higher, that of the ducks eating plankton 40,000 times higher, that of the fish 15,000 times higher. In young swallows fed on insects caught by their parents in the river the radioactivity was 500,000 times higher, and in the egg yolks of water birds more than 1,000,000 times higher.
From official and unofficial sources we have been assured, time and time again, that the increase in radioactivity of the air does not exceed the amount which the human body can tolerate without any harmful effects. This is just evading the issue. Even if we are not directly affected by the radioactive material in the air, we are indirectly affected through that which has fallen down, is falling down, and will fall down. We are absorbing this through radioactive drinking water and through animal and vegetable foodstuffs, to the same extent as radioactive elements are stored in the vegetation of the region in which we live. Unfortunately for us, nature hoards what is falling down from the air.
None of the radioactivity of the air, created by the explosion of atomic bombs, is so unimportant that it may not, in the long run, become a danger to us through increasing the amount of radioactivity stored in our bodies.
What we absorb of radioactivity is not spread evenly in all cellular tissue. It is deposited in certain parts of our body, particularly in the bone tissue and also in the spleen and in the liver. From those sources the organs which are especially sensitive to it are exposed to radiation. What the radiation lacks in strength is compensated for by time. It works day and night without interruption.
How does radiation affect the cells of an organ?
Through being ionized, that is to say, electrically charged. This change means that the chemical processes which make it possible for the cells to do their job in our body no longer function as they should. They are no longer able to perform the tasks which are of vital importance to us. We must also bear in mind that a great number of the cells of an organ may degenerate or die as a result of radiation.
What are the diseases caused by internal radiation? The same diseases that are known to be caused by external radiation.
They are mainly serious blood diseases. The cells of the red bone marrow, where the red and the white blood corpuscles are formed, are very sensitive to radioactive rays. It is these corpuscles, found in great numbers in the blood, which make it possible for it to play such an important part. If the cells in the bone marrow are damaged by radiation they will produce too few or abnormal, degenerating blood corpuscles. Both cases lead to blood diseases and, frequently, to death. These were the diseases that killed the victims of X-rays and radium rays.
It was one of these diseases that attacked the Japanese fishermen who were surprised in their vessel by radioactive ashes falling down 240 miles from Bikini after the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. With one exception, they were all saved, being strong and relatively mildly affected, through continuous blood transfusions.
In the cases cited the radiation came from the outside. It is unfortunately very probable that internal radiation affecting the bone marrow and lasting for years will have the same effect, particularly since the radiation goes from the bone tissue to the bone marrow. As I have said, the radioactive elements are by preference stored in the bone tissue.
Not our own health only is threatened by internal radiation, but also that of our descendants. The fact is that the cells of the reproductive organs are particularly vulnerable to radiation which in this case attacks the nucleus to such an extent that it can be seen in the microscope.
To the profound damage of these cells corresponds a profound damage to our descendants.
It consists in stillbirths and in the births of babies with mental or physical defects.
In this context also, we can point to the effects of radiation coming from the outside.
It is a fact – even if the statistical material being published in the press needs checking – that in Nagasaki, during the years following the dropping of the atom bomb, an exceptionally high occurrence of stillbirths and of deformed children was observed.
In order to establish the effect of radioactive radiation on posterity, comparative studies have been made between the descendants of doctors who have been using X-ray apparatus over a period of years and descendants of doctors who have not. The material of this study comprises about 3,000 doctors in each group. A noticeable different was found. Among the descendants of radiologists a percentage of stillbirths of 1.403 was found, while the percentage among the non-radiologists was 1.222.
In the first group 6.01 per cent of the children had congenital defects, while only 4.82 per cent in the second.
The number of healthy children in the first group was 80.42 per cent; the number in the other was significantly higher, viz. 83.23 per cent.
It must be remembered that even the weakest of internal radiation can have harmful effects on our descendants.
The total effect of the damage done to descendants of ancestors who have been exposed to radioactive rays will not, in accordance with the laws of genetics, be apparent in the generations coming immediately after us. The full effects will appear only 100 or 200 years later.
As the matter stands we cannot at present cite cases of serious damage done by internal radiation. To the extent that such radiation exists it is not sufficiently strong and has not lasted long enough to have caused the damage in question. We can only conclude from the harmful effects known to be caused by external radiation to those we must expect in the future from internal radiation.
If the effect of the latter is not as strong as that of the former, it may become so, through working little by little and without interruption. The final result will be the same in both cases.
Their effects add up.
We must also remember that internal radiation, in contrast to that coming from the outside, does not have to penetrate layers of skin, tissues, and muscles to hit the organs. It works at close range and without any weakening of its force.
When we realize under what conditions the internal radiation is working, we cease to underrate it. Even if it is true that, when speaking of the dangers of internal radiation, we can point to no actual case, only express our fear, that fear is so solidly founded on facts that it attains the weight of reality in determining our attitude. We are forced to regard every increase in the existing danger through further creation of radioactive elements by atom bomb explosions as a catastrophe for the human race, a catastrophe that must be prevented.
There can be no question of doing anything else, if only for the reason that we cannot take the responsibility for the consequences it might have for our descendants.
They are threatened by the greatest and most terrible danger.
That radioactive elements created by us are found in nature is an astounding event in the history of the earth and of the human race. To fail to consider its importance and its consequences would be a folly for which humanity would have to pay a terrible price. We are committing a folly in thoughtlessness. It must not happen that we do not pull ourselves together before it is too late. We must muster the insight, the seriousness, and the courage to leave folly and to face reality.
This is at bottom what the statesmen of the nations producing atomic bombs are thinking, too. Through the reports they are receiving they are sufficiently informed to form their own judgments, and we must also assume that they are alive to their responsibility.
At any rate, America and Soviet Russia and Britain are telling one another again and again that they want nothing more than to reach an agreement to end the testing of atomic weapons. At the same time, however, they declare that they cannot stop the tests as long as there is no such agreement.
Why do they not come to an agreement? The real reason is that in their own countries there is no public opinion asking for it. Nor is there any such public opinion in other countries with the exception of Japan. This opinion has been forced upon the Japanese people because, little by little, they will be hit in a most terrible way by the evil consequences of all the tests.
An agreement of this kind presupposes reliability and trust. There must be guarantees preventing the agreement from being signed by anyone intending to win important tactical advantages foreseen only by him.
Public opinion in all nations concerned must inspire and accept the agreement.
When public opinion has been created in the countries concerned and among all nations — an opinion informed of the dangers involved in going on with the tests and led by the reason which this information imposes –, then the statesmen may reach an agreement to stop the experiments.
A public opinion of this kind stands in no need of plebiscites or of forming of committees to express itself. It works through just being there.
The end of further experiments with atom bombs would be like the early sunrays of hope which suffering humanity is longing for.
Originally published in Saturday Review, May 18, 1957