September 7, 2011

What does the 50th anniversary of PSR signify?

The anniversary marks the half-century of work that PSR has done to articulate the primary public health strategy of preventing nuclear war from ever happening. The physicians who founded PSR 50 years ago were part of a larger mass movement within the U.S. and worldwide that had developed in response to the twin explosions of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The founding of PSR signified a watershed event for physicians, in which they broke through the usual confines of dealing with patient health on a one-to-one basis, and recognized that the impact of a thermonuclear exchange would defy any ability for physicians and society to adequately deal with the consequences. Therefore, physicians had to step out of the traditional limitations of a doctor/patient relationship and take political positions to prevent any such exchange from happening. The founding of PSR marks the twin concepts of taking a primary public health approach and becoming politically involved to do so.

This anniversary highlights this important record of physician action against nuclear weapons. It also reminds us that we’re a long way from being able to abolish nuclear weapons, given many nations’ desires to possess them for political power. The 50th anniversary allows us to celebrate what we’ve done up to this point and to challenge what’s ahead.

Can you talk about the founding of SF Bay Area PSR and what the chapter has accomplished since its inception?

SF Bay Area PSR was founded around 1980, after the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island. Members of our chapter, like the newly revitalized national organization, initially focused on the dangers of nuclear power, but then we reconnected these issues with nuclear weapons, given the ascendancy of the “winnable nuclear war” strategies of the early Reagan Administration. SF Bay Area PSR has been one of the leading chapters over the years in maintaining a strong critique of U.S. foreign and military policies that have impeded our goal for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

As such, in general our chapter has placed the struggle against nuclear weapons within a framework that questions militarism overall, very much in line with the politics of the SF Bay Area. Our security work has not only focused on the details of U.S. foreign and military policy, but also the significant public and environmental health issues involved with the weapons, and the related budgetary impacts on our communities. We have focused on the health impacts of nuclear weapons at all phases; not only detonation, but issues related to production, storage, transport, and deployment. We’ve done a large amount of work in collaboration with partners such as TriValley Cares and Western States Legal Foundation to deal with nuclear weapons projects in our own back yard, particularly weapons development and related environmental issues at the Lawrence Livermore Lab. We’ve been very involved in challenging their plans to expand weapons work and highlighting potential health issues related to radioactive and other toxic releases from legacy lab operations

What have been some highlights of your involvement in PSR?

Starting in the early 1990s, the entire organization of PSR, national and chapters, recognized the significant dangers of impending climate change and toxic degradation of the environment. We began to develop a broad environmental and public health program that went beyond the environmental and health impacts of nuclear weapons. This more general environmental health work is probably at present the most prominent work of our chapter, in terms of the number of our projects and coalition partners. Addressing such environmental issues has given us renewed public prominence and also permitted us to raise nuclear weapons issues among our constituents in fresh and accessible ways. I think that over the last decade we’ve become well-respected partners on environmental health and security issues, and we cherish our real base in our community.

What are next steps you see for the chapter?
We are currently facing incredible challenges because of the political situation in Washington. I expect that much of our work, given the blockage at the national level, will be with local partners such as Health Care Without Harm around a variety of environmental issues that cross a lot of constituencies.

Given the significant challenges in our country with regard to unemployment and budget cuts for basic health and social needs, I personally think that more of our work needs to be integrated into a larger social justice framework, both due to the merits of the social justice issues themselves and also to be able to reach and connect with people who are deeply involved in struggling to survive and support their families. We need to meet people where they are. We have to talk about the hundreds of billions of dollars going to subsidize nuclear power, and to support conventional and nuclear weapons programs, that are not going to essential services or to addressing climate change in any fundamental way, particularly in a manner that could provide good, “green” jobs.

What can supporters do? 

We invite people to work with us by joining our speakers bureau; volunteering to bring our work with Health Care Without Harm to their hospitals; participating in visits to local Congressional representatives and state legislators, as well as important hearings on our issues in Sacramento; and submitting Op-Eds and letters to Editors. And we continue to appreciate the very generous financial support we’ve had from our membership, and hope they can step up at times like this.

Can you share some words about Dr. Victor Sidel, who is coming to celebrate PSR’s 50th anniversary with our local chapter?

Vic Sidel, as well as his colleagues who founded PSR, including Bernard Lown, Jack Geiger, Sid Alexander and Herb Abrams, represent to me some of the most inspiring people I’ve had the good fortune to meet. Vic has in many ways been a real mentor to me, in terms of highlighting the importance of being knowledgeable about the science that underscores our work, and, above all, having the courage to speak out on all of the health and environmental issues that face us. He remains a model to me and it’s been a profound privilege to work with him all these years, within the Peace Caucus of the American Public Health Association, IPPNW and PSR.