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John Gofman, 88; physicist warned about radiation risks

August 28, 2007|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Dr. John W. Gofman, the medical physicist whose fight for what he considered scientific honesty in understanding the health effects of ionizing radiation made him a pariah to the nuclear power industry and the U.S. government, died of heart failure Aug. 15 at his home in San Francisco. He was 88.

Often called the father of the antinuclear movement, Gofman and his colleague at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Arthur R. Tamplin, developed data in 1969 showing that the risk from low doses of radiation was 20 times higher than stated by the government.

Their publication of the data, despite strong efforts to censor it, led them to lose virtually all of their research funding and, eventually, their positions at the government laboratory.

Most of their conclusions have subsequently been validated, but critics say the risks have been ignored by an electric power industry that sees nuclear energy as a pollution-free alternative to fossil fuels and by a medical industry that continues to use much larger amounts of radiation for medical tests than are required.

"He always stood up for the integrity of science," said Charles Weiner, professor emeritus of the history of science at MIT.

"He was really an original voice" in the debate over the risks of nuclear power, Weiner said, "someone who was an insider in nuclear weapons production who was very highly regarded by leaders in the field . . . and who brought credential, credibility and authority."

Until his death, Gofman's position continued to be that there is no safe level of exposure to ionizing radiation.

"Licensing a nuclear power plant is, in my view, licensing random premeditated murder," Gofman said in the 1982 book "Nuclear Witnesses: Insiders Speak Out."

"First of all, when you license a plant, you know what you are doing -- so it's premeditated. You can't say, 'I didn't know.' Second, the evidence on radiation producing cancer is beyond doubt. . . . It's not a question anymore: Radiation produces cancer, and the evidence is good all the way down to the lowest doses."

Gofman and Tamplin's data about the health effects of radiation -- and their revelations about the Atomic Energy Commission's attempts to silence them -- played a large role in the demise of that organization in 1974.

The Atomic Energy Commission was divided into two organizations: the Energy Research and Development Administration, whose goal was to promote the development of atomic energy, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was supposed to monitor the safety of the nuclear industry.

Gofman argued, however, that the changes were merely cosmetic and that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continued to promote nuclear power to the detriment of the public at large.

In 1971, he helped found the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, a San Francisco-based advocacy group that studies the health effects of ionizing radiation. During that decade, he and others unsuccessfully argued for a five-year moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants, arguing that the generation of massive quantities of radioactive waste made them a major health risk.

The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the Soviet Union proved to be much more powerful arguments against the industry, however, and construction of new facilities slowed dramatically in their wakes.

Although nuclear power today accounts for 20% of the electric power generated in the United States, the last new nuclear power plant to be completed was the Watts Bar 1 plant in Tennessee, which came online in 1996.

More recently, Gofman had argued forcefully that radiation is overused in medicine, both for diagnosis and treatment, without a full consideration of the risks. He noted that some hospitals use as much as 100 times the required radiation for imaging. He also argued that CT scans are used too often when less dangerous approaches are available.

Many of Gofman's colleagues viewed his ultimate opposition to nuclear power as a long, strange journey for a scientist who had been intimately associated with the creation of the industry.

John William Gofman was born Sept. 21, 1918, in Cleveland, the son of Russian immigrants. After finishing high school during the Great Depression, he attended nearby Oberlin talking his way in and wangling a scholarship despite the fact that admissions were formally closed.

After graduating, he enrolled in medical school at Cleveland's Western Reserve University. After a year, however, he took a leave of absence and enrolled in the chemistry program at UC Berkeley.

Upon his arrival there, Dean Gilbert Newton Lewis told Gofman that he wanted him to begin his research project "in the next week or two." After talking to several professors, he met with future Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg, who suggested that he might examine whether uranium-233 could exist in nature.

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