The voice of protest can often sound silly, but brave too

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The Independent Online
My activism was kickstarted at the age of 10, the day I picked up a paperback on the Holocaust and understood what injustice truly was. That day I became a shouter, a marcher, a campaigner for the causes I felt countered injustice. It drove my mother mad. But I knew I would never be able to accept the status quo. Too often, it merely seemed unjust. The voice of objection has sometimes been obscure, silly or wilful. But more often it has been serious, brave and inspirational. In the past few weeks, I've come across a couple of inspiring dissenters. There have also been some terrifying incentives to disagree with decisions made by the powers that would be, especially with regard to nuclear power. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament fired me up in the Sixties. Decades later, the touchpaper of the Cold War remains the primary threat to our well-being.

FOR the past few years, I've helped fund Project Censored, an American media group which dedicates itself to breaking stories the mainstream media won't touch. Acid rain and US involvement in the training of Central American death squads were two such newsworthy items. Project Censored publishes a list each year of the top 10 under-reported stories. The 1996 list is topped by "Chernobyl in space". Last November, just before a failed Russian space probe plunged into the Pacific with its payload of 200 grams of plutonium-238, the media allowed themselves a doomsday scenario, and yet the US government is proceeding with plans for the launch of its Cassini probe to Saturn, carrying 72.3lbs of the deadly stuff, and we're not hearing a peep. The plutonium will sit atop a Titan IV rocket, which already has a reputation for unpredictability. Because the Cassini doesn't have sufficient propulsion to get to Saturn, Nasa plans to whip it back round Earth and "slingshot" it out into space. During this procedure, the probe will be 312 miles above the planet's surface. If at any point it enters the atmosphere, it is likely to burn up and scatter its lethal plutonium. Even Nasa concedes that around five billion people would be exposed to at least 99 per cent of the released radiation. So why run the risk? To generate 745 watts of electricity to run instruments, a job which could as easily be done by safe solar cells like those used in European space missions. What could the "decision-makers" have on their minds? Or is it that the nuclear lobbyist promotes his product with a fatter wallet than the solar energy guy? The sleep of reason truly does breed nuclear monsters. The Cassini probe's fly-by will happen in August 1999, timed to fulfil any number of millennial philosophies. The Cassini probe is the tip of an expanding nuclear presence in space. Any botched exit or re-entry means a lot more for humankind when plutonium is a passenger. Any government that pays more than lip service to its citizens' well-being should be registering its dismay.

ONE dissident who truly appreciates the lunacy of plutonium in space is Helen Caldicott, an Australian doctor who founded Physicians for Social Responsibility. There are now 23,000 members, committed to educating colleagues about the danger of nuclear weapons. Helen was head of the paediatric department at Harvard until 1980 when she quit to campaign for a nuke-free world. She's been a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, the subject of one Oscar-winning documentary, If You Love This Planet, and another Oscar nominee, Eight Minutes to Midnight. She hosts a radio show in New York called Fair Dinkum. Helen's is a revolutionary voice, passionate and persuasive. She provokes strong reactions by telling truths so inescapable it becomes obvious why the media are scared of them. I mean, what can you say about nuclear proliferation in space that manages to convey the enormity and idiocy of the concept without sounding like Nostradamus or the Star Wars creator, George Lucas? Helen's answer is to turn the threat into a medical issue. She's humanised nuclear politics and politicised medicine, and her book Nuclear Madness is the best on the subject.

IN AN election week, it pays to bear in mind these words from anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." And such change comes from dissent, from bucking the system. Every year the Goldman Environmental Foundation brings Mead's words to life when it gives awards to an "environmental hero" from each of the world's six continents. This year's winner for Europe is Alexander Nikitin, a former Russian naval officer imprisoned for treason because he spoke about the state of Russia's ageing nuclear submarine fleet stationed at the Kola Peninsula. The Goldman Award and the US$75,000 attached to it have made Nikitin a national figure in Russia, but they have highlighted the irony of his situation too. Though he is out of prison, the charge of treason is pending, he is forbidden to leave St Petersburg and to some of his countrymen, he is nothing more than a traitor. Activism is lonely. There is no solidarity in it, so it takes courage and commitment. The Goldman Award winner for North America is Terri Swearingen, who has devoted herself to stopping the construction of the largest toxic waste incinerator in the US, almost in her own back yard in East Liverpool, Ohio. The irony of Swearingen's story is that, while her efforts have stopped similar incinerators being built in other parts of the country, they weren't successful in East Liverpool. But the recognition accorded Nikitin and Swearingen at least guarantees that they are not prophets without honour in their own countries. It is also a reminder about the sacrifice and spirit of the people on whom our freedoms are founded. And it reinforces for me the notion that dissent has to be linked to action. That is the real relationship between self-esteem and political expression.