The Importance of Being Ernest

“Dr. Ernest Sternglass, a physicist and inventor whose TV cameras sent the first live pictures back from the moon's surface and were also used in the Hubble Space Telescope, and whose digital x-ray systems work in the 1970s and 80s led to the low x-ray dose and high image accuracy of today's digital machines, died Thursday, February 12, in Ithaca, NY. The cause of death was heart failure. Dr. Sternglass, Emeritus Professor of Radiological Physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, was also a leading anti-nuclear activist. Dr. Sternglass felt that his testimony at the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty hearings in 1963, contributing to halting atmospheric bomb testing in 1963, was his greatest achievement.” - Ithaca Journal



Ernest J. Sternglass, left, discussing his research on nuclear radiation in 1981 with Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation. Credit Keith Meyers/The New York Times

The Importance of Being Ernest: Remembering Ernest Sternglass 

by Maggie Gundersen, Founding Director of Fairewinds Energy Education 

During the early 2000s, I was lucky enough to work with and get to know Ernest Sternglass. For me, working with him on two different projects was an eye-opening experience.

I first heard about Ernest when I was employed by the nuclear industry, first in reload core design for nuclear power plant vendor Combustion Engineering, and later in public relations for a nuclear power plant planned for upstate New York by New York State Electric and Gas. The nuclear engineers and nuclear power lobbyists who trained me always lambasted Dr. Sternglass for his allegedly off-target and unscientific claims about nuclear power.

Throughout my nuclear industry career I heard a constant barrage of industry driven attacks against Dr. Sternglass, so that even with my background as a paralegal in nuclear power plant risk I still was initially skeptical of working with him. As it turned out, I was very lucky to work with Ernest Sternglass on and off for almost five years on a court case regarding cancers found in children near the St. Lucie nuclear power plant. Later, because of the rapport we built on that project, I also edited some of his papers for publication.

Ernest was kind and compassionate and very thorough in all of his scientific analysis. He was a great teacher who was very patient in explaining his insight and analysis, and one of the most communicative, passionate, and kind scientists I have ever worked with. Ernest was certainly not the crackpot the nuclear industry portrayed him to be.

Moreover, during the past five years, scientists and governments around the globe have substantiated many of the scientific claims Ernest made. Looking at the tragic aftermath of the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, ongoing tritium leaks from nuclear plants compromising rivers and aquifers, and newly released data from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island showing how far and wide post-catastrophe radiation spreads, makes me especially cognizant of Ernest’s role in alerting the world to the ongoing flaws and risks of nuclear power.

I for one am thankful that Dr. Ernest Sternglass used his brilliant mind so courageously to stand up for humanity. 

'Alone in the Zone' 
review by Caroline Phillips, Fairewinds Energy Education Administrator

“Loneliness doesn’t quite capture it,” says Matsumura Naoto, the Fukushima farmer who will not leave his animals or his home and is the sole resident of his once bustling town. The post-apocalyptic, evacuated ghost towns of Tomioka and Iitate that are located within a 25mi radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor are featured in a 20-minute video produced by VICE Intl.

As a US citizen, watching this video brings to mind the havoc of Hurricane Katrina and its forced dislocation of so many people living in and around New Orleans. Destruction caused by Fukushima’s nuclear meltdown appears as visceral as the hurricane, but the greatest difference between the two is what no one can see. The highly toxic radiation released by Fukushima Daiichi lingers indefinitely and radioactivity will continue to contaminate once beautiful farmland for hundreds of years.  Now, four years after the nuclear triple meltdown, slow decommissioning of everything in the reactor’s shadow continues without an end date in sight. 

Naoto is a Tomioka farmer who has returned to his cattle farm where ostriches run free since the meltdown. With his arms hanging comfortably around one of these wild, long necked birds, Naoto recounts evacuating his family, living as a refugee, and being refused lodging from his sister-in-law who feared that they were contaminated and would bring radiation into the house. Two years after Fukushima Daiichi’s meltdown, Naoto returned to his farm despite the high cesium levels.  Naoto says he opposes the killing of animals in radiation-controlled zones. While he believes that slaughter for consumption is reasonable, he says that slaughter because of contamination is senseless- “Would they kill people just as indiscreetly?” he asks. 

aloneinthezone.png                A captured 'still' of Matsumura Naoto from VICE Intl.

You might think that Naoto is a simple farmer obsessed with his livestock however, in the words of Hasegawa Kenji another farmer from the area, “Everyone views cattle as all the same. But that’s not true. At all.” Kenji and his family of eight once lived in a stately home on land that supported his life’s work of farming. Now he resides with other refugees from the Fukushima Prefecture in temporary housing that looks like a chain of doublewide trailers. Kenji recalls scientists telling the mayor of Iitate, Kenji’s village, that they were in danger of radiation but the government continued to reassure residents that they were safe. Once it was clear that the scientists had been right about the significant radiation exposure and not the town officials, Kenji and his wife did all they could to care for their exposed and contaminated cows by milking them everyday and pouring out the toxic milk. Sadly, they were eventually forced to systematically slaughter all of their beloved animals.

Radiation Testing Clinic Director, Nihei Masahiko explains that the amount of exposure is irrelevant because if cesium enters the body, there will be damage. Radioactive substances leaked by the Fukushima Daiichi owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, have contaminated the soil of the Fukushima prefecture rendering the land unusable. Yet, according to Nuclear Physics Professor Koide Hiroaki, TEPCO still refuses to accept responsibility for its radioactive fallout because the land is ‘bona vacant’, an ownerless object. 

Not being able to eat or drink without exposing oneself to contamination in a radiation-controlled zone makes Matsumura Naoto’s return to his farm unimaginable for most of us, but I would venture taking that risk is not so unfathomable for Hasegawa Kenji or anyone else who has been indefinitely displaced from their home. Remembering a time before the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Kenji recalls his grandchildren visiting him every day after school to say hi to their grandpa and the cows. That life is over now. All that remains are memories of happier times that Kenji says, “I almost wish I could forget.” 

unnamed.jpgFairewinds in the News:

Last week on WDEV radio, Fairewinds Energy Education’s Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen was interviewed on The Mark Johnson Show by host Mark Johnson. The nine-am interview covered the recent discovery of a Strontium-90 leak at the Vermont Yankee nuclear site and what the discovery of this new contaminant means for the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee. Arnie answered questions from concerned Vermont listeners who called into the live show.

unnamed-1.jpg Nuclear News:

Indigenous Canadians continue to fight for their health and land rights in the uranium mining hotspot of northern Saskatchewan. The Northern Trappers Alliance, founded by a small group of Dene trappers who famously blockaded the industrial traffic of tar sands and uranium exploration companies along Saskatchewan's Highway 955 back in November are featured in this VICE Magazine expose. "Many people have been getting sick... it's a concern even amongst the young people. In a three month period six people died in the community of cancer, and these are not really old people—like people in their 50s, people that have worked in the mines," Candyce Paul, spokesperson for the Alliance and a member of the anti-nuclear Committee for the Future Generations, said. Uranium mining has left a legacy of contamination and degradation with an unprecedented rise in cancer, destroyed surroundings, and created a scarcity of wildlife that indigenous trappers rely on for food Paul explains.  While more than 85% of northern Saskatchewan residents are aboriginal, the Saskatchewan government’s lack of consultation with aboriginal people and groups has created a history of conflict as big industry has had free rein in the ongoing development of full-scale uranium mines . For example, the Cluff Lake mine, which has been undergoing decommissioning since 2002, is located the closest to the Alliance trappers.  AREVA, owner of the Cluff Lake mine, claims that it will leave the former mine site "suitable for traditional land uses consisting of casual access, with trapping, hunting, and fishing," after decommissioning the mine, although it also acknowledges the surface and groundwater will still be contaminated.
a-dene-alliance-formed-to-resist-uranium-and-tar-sands-mining-in-saskatchewan-892-body-image-1423688974.jpg  Fuel drums left behind by exploration companies, photo courtesy of VICE 

Candyce Paul told VICE that “A high rate of the people who worked in the Cluff Lake mine are no longer with us,” referring to the rise in cancer due to exposure to toxins from the mine. AREVA denied any acknowledgement of these deaths in a statement to VICE. The article notes that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s (CNSC) public stand is that low levels of radiation do not contribute to cancer and “in contrast, the National Academies of Sciences have found conclusively that any exposure to ionizing radiation will increase the risks of developing cancer.”

Wildfires in the dense boreal forest of Chernobyl are releasing radiation that remains in the top layers of soil from the nuclear plant explosion of 1986. Researchers are finding that the combination of climate change and a slower leaf decay associated with the death of insects and microorganisms killed by radiation are creating an increase in forest fires in the contaminated “exclusion zone”. Smoke from these fires has spread radiation all over Eastern Europe, and as far west as Italy and Scandinavia. "This is clearly an important problem and one that applies also to Fukushima, where a significant amount of forest land has been contaminated," says Keith Baverstock of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, formerly head of radiation protection at the World Health Organization's European office.



– Book of the Month
 A Bluish White Light
 by Yasunaga Tatsumi and Sato Yutei

The Fairewinds office was honored to receive a copy of A Bluish White Light as a gift from co-author Yasunaga Tatsumi. These powerful short poems are written in the classical Japanese style of “tanka”, a major genre of Japanese literature. Sato Yutei, author and farmer of the Fukushima Prefect, started writing tanka poems during the early operation of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the 1980s. By 1988, Yutei foretells a chilling end to farming in the region and advises his son to leave the family business behind and pursue a different life path. Years go by, radiation leaks from the reactor and neighbors get sick, and die from poisoning. A voice like those of so many living in the radioactive shadow of a nuclear plant, Yutei’s tanka style like a personal diary takes us through the decades leading up to Fukushima’s meltdown capturing the uncertainty and vulnerability of the Japanese people whose lives already greatly affected by nuclear in the 1940s are hit once again with the nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011.


Ernest Sternglass, Physicist and Nuclear Critic, Dies at 91

Ernest J. Sternglass, whose research in radiation physics laid the foundation for important technological advances and who became a prominent opponent of nuclear weapons, died on Feb. 12 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 91.

The cause was heart failure, said his son, Daniel.

Early in his career, Dr. Sternglass figured out a basic interaction between electrons and metals, which was developed into cameras that could take images in dimly lit places. NASA adopted the technology for a television camera on Apollo 11, taking video of Neil Armstrong descending to the surface of the moon.

He later pioneered technology for the use of solid-state electronic sensors instead of photographic film for taking medical X-rays.

Before those successes, in 1947, when he was a recent college graduate working at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, he had a formative meeting with Albert Einstein.

Dr. Sternglass was conducting experiments in which he bombarded a piece of metal with a beam of electrons. The beam caused other electrons to be ejected in a process called secondary electron emissions, and the military thought the process could be used to see in poorly lit areas.

Dr. Sternglass wrote to Einstein, challenging the prevailing theory for explaining such electron emissions and offering his own ideas. Einstein invited him to visit him at his home in Princeton, N.J., and they spent an afternoon in discussions. Dr. Sternglass later recounted that Einstein discouraged him from pursuing theoretical physics and gave him unexpected advice: “Don’t go back to school. They will try to crush every bit of originality out of you. Don’t go back to graduate school.”

The two continued corresponding, and Einstein encouraged the electron research.

Dr. Sternglass did go back to school, but he followed Einstein’s advice to focus on the practical. After earning his doctorate in engineering physics from Cornell in 1953, he joined the Westinghouse Research Laboratory, and his work there on secondary electron emissions led to a highly sensitive camera tube that was used in the video camera on Apollo 11.

In the 1960s, Dr. Sternglass and other researchers concluded that medical X-rays harmed developing fetuses. Babies whose mothers had X-rays, they found, later had higher rates of infant mortality and childhood leukemia. That, in turn, led him to testify at a Senate committee hearing in favor of a treaty to ban aboveground nuclear testing. The radioactive fallout from such tests, Dr. Sternglass testified, was similarly harmful.

The Senate ratified the treaty. “He felt that was one of the major achievements in his life,” Daniel Sternglass said.

In 1967, Dr. Sternglass left Westinghouse to become a professor of radiation physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

That same year the Atomic Energy Commission proposed Project Ketch, which would use nuclear weapons for a peaceful purpose: an underground explosion of an atomic bomb in central Pennsylvania to create a cavern to store natural gas.

In the 1981 book “Nuclear Witnesses” by Leslie J. Freeman, Dr. Sternglass recounted learning about Project Ketch from a friend who was an editor at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“These people are crazy,” Dr. Sternglass recalled telling his friend. “This is the heart of dairy country. Millions of curies of radioactive iodine would poison the milk all the way up to New England, all the way to New York, Washington, down to Philadelphia. This is madness.”

Dr. Sternglass wrote an opinion article opposing Project Ketch and became a frequent critic of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, making controversial claims such as that fallout from nuclear tests was to blame for a halt to a two-decade decline in infant mortality. He argued that from 1950 on, such fallout had contributed to the deaths of 400,000 babies in the United States alone.

“He believed very strongly that these correlations existed, and these effects were real,” Daniel Sternglass said. Other scientists, however, questioned many of his assumptions, as well as his conclusions.

After the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, Dr. Sternglass measured radiation levels at the Harrisburg airport, two miles from the reactors, and found them to be 15 times higher than normal.

“This corresponds to a major fallout pattern from a nuclear bomb test,” he told The Associated Press.

Critics accused Dr. Sternglass of inflaming fears. “Dr. Ernest Sternglass, a perennial campaigner against nuclear power, is accused by neutral health authorities of mishandling data to demonstrate health damage,” an editorial in The New York Times said. “Even in nuclear fables there are people who cry wolf.”

George Wald, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist at Harvard, took note of the criticisms in his foreword to Dr. Sternglass’s 1981 book, “Secret Fallout: Low-Level Radiation From Hiroshima to Three Mile Island.”

“At times in this book I had the feeling he was going a little far,” Dr. Wald wrote. “But then I never could be sure, once I had read over carefully what he was saying, that it was too far. The truth is that once one starts down this path, it’s hard to know where or whether to stop. And on the fundamental issues, Sternglass is dealing with a very strong case.”

In the 1980s, Dr. Sternglass, along with Donald Sashin and other colleagues at Pittsburgh, demonstrated how to record medical X-rays with solid-state sensors rather than photographic film. The sensors, more sensitive than film, reduced radiation doses. With the images stored digitally, computer algorithms, now commonplace in image editing programs like Photoshop, could easily increase contrast to allow doctors to more easily see tumors and other details.

Ernest Joachim Sternglass was born on Sept. 24, 1923, in Berlin. Both his parents were doctors. When the Nazi SS surrounded a section of a city where a large number of Jewish professionals, including Dr. Sternglass’s father, had offices, one of the SS agents, a patient of his father’s, allowed his father to go home. The family soon left Germany, moving to New York City in 1938.

After earning his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Cornell in 1944, he served in the Navy and then began working at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. In 1948, he returned to Cornell to begin his graduate studies.

His first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife, Marilyn, died in 2004.

In addition to his son, Dr. Sternglass is survived by a daughter, Susan Sternglass Noble, and four grandchildren.

After retiring from the University of Pittsburgh in 1983, Dr. Sternglass looked for additional projects. During the era of nuclear tests, scientists had tracked the dispersion of radiation by looking at the levels of strontium-90 — a radioactive element produced by nuclear fission reactions with chemical properties similar to calcium — in baby teeth. They found that the levels increased in the 1950s, when testing was at its height.

Dr. Sternglass and Jay Gould, a statistician, came up with the idea of doing a similar study looking at children living around nuclear power plants. The research, which led to the founding of the Radiation and Public Health Project, found higher strontium levels in the baby teeth of children living closer to the plants.

  • published this page in Newsletters 2015-07-14 15:05:05 -0400


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