Inside Alec Baldwin’s Crusade to Take Down a Nobel Prize-Winning Lab
In the summer of 1997, an environmental activist and sport fishing boat captain named Bill Smith called actor Alec Baldwin. He wanted to meet him at a diner in Amagansett, where Baldwin had a house, to talk about the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory.
An intimidating presence — burly, loud, and swaggering, with a ponytail and facial stubble — Smith was absolutely convinced that Brookhaven was not only contaminating the Peconic River but that “these bastards are killing people on Long Island and they’re getting away with it.”
After the meeting, Baldwin wrote a letter to the East Hampton Star, entitled “Environmental Suicide.” “Shut down B.N.L.’s reactors immediately,” he demanded, for citizens have the right to “live free from a reckless toxifying government energy policy.” No matter that the High Flux Beam Reactor (HFBR) was a research reactor unrelated to energy policy and devoted to materials research and medical isotope production; people read the letter. That summer, Baldwin helped crystallize a powerful and well-funded anti-nuclear organization called Standing for Truth About Radiation, or STAR.
He quickly became the group’s most important asset. Celebrities are a boon to causes. They are charismatic, able to motivate and focus people, and know how to enthrall reporters and beckon cameras. Baldwin, in particular, knew how to get audiences to ignore personal warts and transform a bad boy reputation into an engaging, even cute persona with a social conscience. His crude and belligerent language and outrageous statements were charming; when challenged, he might walk back his remark, or say he was misquoted or joking. He rambled in public pronouncements, but his celebrity status and powerful media presence attracted new audiences.
At the time Baldwin was at something of a lull in his film career and was flirting with political ambitions. As he told a reporter at New York Magazine, “I want to be a ‘feral’ Democrat” and a “ferocious liberal.” He said he could “beat the crap” out of Michael Forbes, who represented a Long Island district, if he wanted to, though he had still higher ambitions.
So he was unhappy when a writer for New Republic followed him around for a day and wrote a less than fully flattering profile. Baldwin had fulminated about Brookhaven’s reactor that, he alleged, was near his house and leaking radioactive waste. The previous year, B.N.L. had reported a leak of small amounts of tritium, a weakly radioactive form of hydrogen, from the HFBR. Federal, State, and local studies found that the leak posed absolutely no health hazard either to the lab or the community. Tritium was considered so safe that it was used in self-illuminating consumer products like exit signs, and the tritium plume would soon dilute and decay. He even drew a sketch of the plume for the reporter, over which he drew an arrow supposed to point to East Hampton (though the arrow was not pointing in the direction the plume was traveling): “Every year, the radiation is coming closer to my home.” The reporter fact-checked, and learned that Brookhaven’s reactor was used for research, that the plume had not left the lab site, and that in any case the plume was not moving anywhere near the direction of Baldwin’s home in distant Amagansett. The reporter also discovered that Baldwin had declined invitations to visit Brookhaven and inspect the reactor himself. Baldwin soon changed his mind about running for office. “Well, it was a fun story while it lasted,” editorialized Newsday. Instead of becoming a feral Democrat, Baldwin became an anti-Brookhaven activist.
STAR continued its activities vigorously that year, capitalizing on all the resources Baldwin now provided them. Baldwin had even recruited several more Hamptons-based celebrities, including the actor Spalding Gray and rock promoter Ron Delsener; he also got Barbra Streisand to give a contribution. In January 1998, Baldwin and STAR made their most sensational and widely publicized performance piece yet on “The Montel Williams Show.”
Before STAR, activist events had been small-impact stuff. Baldwin’s celebrity networking and media access now brought anti-BNL activism national visibility, and made it socially engaging and morally exciting. Baldwin sought out his show-biz friend Montel Williams for help. A motivational speaker and Daytime Emmy Award winner, Williams had a tabloid talk show often criticized for promoting pseudoscience and quack medicines, especially after Williams began sponsoring a psychic named Sylvia Browne who claimed that her “readings” could tell parents about their missing children. Browne, who claimed to have seen heaven and angels, told more than one set of distraught parents that their missing child was dead, only to have the child turn up alive — causing one outraged person to open a website called “Stop Sylvia Browne.” Still, the show had a national audience, and Baldwin arranged for STAR to appear on it.
“The strategy was that we were going to take advantage of everything we could until they listened,” recalls Scott Cullen, an East Hampton resident who gave legal advice to the group. “Not everybody thought it [the show] was a good idea.”
The show’s producers had contacted the lab saying that they wanted to do an episode about its research and asked to interview several scientists, having them sign an “Appearance Agreement” stating that they would not sue the producer no matter how their remarks were used. Suspicious on learning that the show was to involve Alec Baldwin, Mona Rowe, Brookhaven’s head of media relations, arranged interviews with a handful of women scientists, most of whom had raised children at the lab. When all the planned interviews were done, the show’s producer asked to have someone talk about what the lab was doing to clean up the reactors. Tempted to do the interview herself, Rowe instead called in Bill Gunther, head of environmental remediation. He, too, had brought his children to the lab frequently. The “Montel Williams” crew also filmed him, then left.
The show aired on January 9, 1998. On it, Baldwin falsely claimed that “the rates of cancer are 200 to 300 times the national average in this area on Long Island,” while more disinformation came from Williams, who said that “the incidence of breast cancer in Nassau and Suffolk is the highest in the U.S.” That wasn’t all. Helen Caldicott, a prominent and charismatic anti-nuclear activist, falsely accused BNL of designing nuclear weapons and declared that New York State was hiding the data that would prove increased cancer incidences near the lab.
The show’s theatrical centerpiece was “Kenny,” an eight-year-old child with rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS), a rare form of childhood cancer. Even if the disease had been linked to radiation — the American Cancer Society said it was not — it was physically impossible for plumes from the lab to have flowed to the South Shore where Kenny lived. Nevertheless, Baldwin and STAR members proclaimed that Kenny’s cancer, and those of others in Suffolk County mentioned on the show, were caused by Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Baldwin and Williams then used the sick child in a heart-wrenchingly manipulative way.
“I know a lot of adults have said to you what they think has caused this. Why do you think you have cancer?” Williams asks the youth.
A bit trembling, the child obediently answers “Brookhaven Lab.”
Williams then tells the child that he will let him star in a public service video. Baldwin says excitedly, “You know the way this works. We’ll give you your own trailer!” Williams cheerfully adds, “And your agent can negotiate the fees, all right?” The eight-year-old sounded unenthusiastic, perhaps baffled by being treated as a movie star and addressed in show-biz lingo.
Baldwin suggested that the lab refused to let him enter, not mentioning the numerous invitations he had accepted and canceled. He said that “nothing would make me happier” if independent research showed that the lab posed no cancer threat, not mentioning studies that had shown just that by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health, and the Suffolk County Water Authority.
“The Montel Williams Show” was terrific theater staged by veteran show-business personalities who knew how to use the media to deliver misinformation with an emotional punch to a national audience. The Suffolk County Task Force and the New York State Cancer Registry had shown that the rhabdomyosarcoma incidence was not higher around Brookhaven, while according to the American Cancer Society “there are no proven lifestyle-related or environmental causes of RMS, so at this time there is no way to protect against these cancers,” though some of the gene changes can be inherited from a parent. Yet Baldwin, Caldicott, and Williams, without mentioning sources, confidently proclaimed to the audience that the rate was much higher around the lab, and that the specific cause was Brookhaven National Laboratory.
The producers of the show did not include any of their interviews with lab women and chose to use only Gunther — and as a foil. After showing a brief clip of him talking about taking his children to the lab, Caldicott said, “They’re gonna die.” Gunther later had to explain this remark to his unnerved son.
No one who has seen that show forgets “Kenny.” No one fails to be moved by a child with cancer. Baldwin and STAR had staged a riveting performance. As a lab employee wrote, “Who could not love a guy who seemingly rides to the defense of unfortunate children with horrendous diseases and does the White Knight routine?” He and other members of Friends of Brookhaven (FOB), an informal group of Brookhaven employees who ranged from senior scientists to managerial and clerical staff, commented that the STAR performers were manipulating rather than helping such children by assigning blame for their disease to preselected villains while ignoring the best existing knowledge about cancer incidences and cures.
“The Montel Williams Show” got wide attention, and was seen by an estimated nine million people across the nation; it provoked hundreds of calls to STAR. Liz Smith gave a “Bravo” to Alec Baldwin in her Newsday society column. STAR fielded hundreds of calls from people eager to sign on. The lab received horrified letters and emails from people who had seen the program, and had assumed that Baldwin’s accusations were true. One two-sentence email asked, “What is being done about the sick children?” to which a lab employee responded with a two-page letter explaining the rhabdomyosarcoma and other cancer statistics on Long Island. The show was designed to spread the message that rhabdomyosarcoma was caused by radiation — and by Brookhaven. At the end of the show, Williams made a slip of the tongue, referring to STAR as an acronym for “Standing for Truth Against Radiation.”
Friends of Brookhaven members and other laboratory employees were appalled, some comparing it to the accusations at the Salem witch trials and to the rants of Senator Joseph McCarthy. “We need to respond,” emailed an FOB member. Another member arranged for the show’s producer to accept comments in response, writing, “This is not just about our jobs. I doubt any one of us would put our jobs before the health and welfare of our children. This is about fair play and callous disregard for truth and decency at the expense of an institution with a legacy of benefit for mankind.”
The group scheduled a letter-writing campaign, then thought better, realizing that their letters would be used to fuel controversy and provide material for another one-sided episode. A few local newspapers published outraged letters. “To allow guests and Montel Williams to mislead the public in such serious, misguided, misinformed facts is criminal,” went one letter to the Three Village Times. “Don’t confuse me with the facts,” the Village Times editorialized. “But who wants to be bothered with inconvenient reality when pushing a few panic buttons will generate far more publicity?” Another was irate that STAR members had made false accusations of danger, said blatant untruths about innocent people, and made claims of events that aren’t happening and of conspiracies that didn’t exist: “Let’s stop hunting for witches.” Newsday noted that Williams and Baldwin were promoting “unproven links” between rhabdomyosarcoma and lab activities and that “repeated studies by federal, state, and local government groups and independent agencies have not found any link between the lab’s activities and cancer.”
Some Long Islanders detected in the event a downward and dangerous movement in the social standing of science. If influencers on popular media programs could publicly denounce reputable institutions like the EPA and ATSDR, they and their followers could doubt anything, believe anything, and threaten a democracy that depended on the guidance provided by facts and expert advice. The president of the Association for a Better Long Island, Jan Burman, wrote an editorial in Newsday attacking STAR and other activists who did not merely want to clean up the lab but to close it as returning “us all to the dark ages.” “If the Brookhaven lab is closed,” Burman concluded, “we will deserve the darkness that will follow.” Others viewed the prospect of shutting the HFBR, or the lab, as an “environmental Maginot line,” a popular but useless political action that would seemingly improve public safety but would actually undermine it by providing a false sense of security.
One of the country’s most distinguished health physicists wrote to the New York Times about the show. Otto Raabe, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, was president of the Health Physics Society, and three years before had received that organization’s Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award. For two decades his organization had been struggling to combat groundless fears about radiation. He was incensed not only that celebrities were venturing into his field but also because their statements were damaging as they prevented the public from having an accurate picture of public health threats.
On January 22, Raabe wrote the New York Times a lengthy letter about Caldicott and “The Montel Williams Show.” “She has been peddling these types of irrational antinuclear falsehoods for about 20 years,” he wrote, “under the mantel of a medical degree from Australia, but she is not an expert in radiation sciences and has no training or experience in the fields of radiation biology, health physics, radiation risk assessment, or environmental health.” He continued, “Unfortunately I can’t in this short letter specifically address all the stupid, outlandish, and ridiculous contentions and predictions presented by Helen Caldicott.”
Raabe concluded, “I implore your readers to rely on recognized authorities and board-certified health physicists for accurate information about environmental radioactivity. These are persons who have studied, trained and worked to safeguard the public and the environment from exposure to ionizing radiation and who are truly the ones who are standing for truth about radiation.”
The New York Times did not publish Raabe’s letter.
STAR’s celebrities got on a nationally televised show and had standing in the media right down to society columns. Leon Jaroff, an eminent science writer — he was the founder of Discover magazine — and expert in exposing health frauds, was able to publish a few articles in a small paper on the East End of Long Island, while Raabe, an eminent health physicist who was an expert in the relevant field, went unpublished. It was not that they had done anything wrong; Baldwin and Caldicott were only playing a game at which they, and not the scientists, were professionals.
The final report of the Suffolk County Task Force report, whose results had been publicized long before “The Montel Williams Show” episode — and whose members included some STAR members — appeared two weeks afterward. “The Suffolk County Task Force on Brookhaven National Laboratory found no elevated cancer rates in communities near the Lab,” it ran, and the incidences of rhabdomyosarcoma were found to be less in Suffolk County than in Nassau County, Queens, Brooklyn, and the rest of New York State. Robert Grimson, an eminent epidemiologist from the nearby Stony Brook University, told reporters, “There is no cluster of rhabdomyosarcoma in Suffolk County or in the lab,” nor was there a higher rate of breast cancer. A follow-up study in 2011 by the ATSDR, the CDC’s sister agency, reached the same conclusion: “The BNL site does not currently pose a health hazard.”
The day after the episode was broadcast, a public comment meeting was held at Longwood High School. John Axe, a scientist who worked at the HFBR, was heckled by a half-dozen or so activists sitting in the last row of seats against the auditorium’s wall. At one point Axe mentioned the reactor’s role in investigating a certain kind of cancer treatment.
One activist interrupted in a loud voice, “Who did that ever help?” A person sitting in the second-to-last row, directly in front of the hecklers, turned around and said quietly, “Me.” That silenced the activists, at least for a few minutes until their convictions returned. For scientists to have gotten more attention would have required such exchanges somehow to have taken place front and center onstage rather than in the back of the auditorium.
Robert P. Crease is Professor in and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Stony Brook University, where he has taught for more than three decades. He is the author of, among other books, “The Great Equations,” “The Prism and the Pendulum,” and “The Leak,” from which this article is adapted. He has written for publications including The Atlantic, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.