Radioactive isotopes were making their way into the country’s milk supply, and Edward J. Markey, the son of a milkman, was sounding the alarm.
He delivered his appeal to the biggest audience he could find: students, parents, and staff gathered for the Malden Catholic High School science fair.
The year was 1962. Markey was 15.
Twenty years later, he was a congressman calling for a freeze of nuclear weapons before almost a million protesters in Central Park. “This is just the beginning,” he pledged.
Now, more than three decades after that, Markey is still warning of our shared nuclear peril — only this time from his perch in the US Senate.
No elected official on the national scene has been banging the drum about the nuclear menace as loudly and for as long as the 71-year-old Malden Democrat.
And with President Trump’s nuclear saber rattling and fervent embrace of a new arms race, Markey’s decades-long efforts have again gained relevance.
“I work on this issue because I think it is the most important issue that faces the planet,” he said in an interview in his Boston office. “We are slipping very quickly into an era where nuclear weapons are becoming more contemplatable, more likely to be used.”
Trump has embraced a muscular nuclear posture, saying in 2016 after the election, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
One month later, Markey introduced a bill that would prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. At a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing that included discussion of the bill, he warned that “Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account.”
In January, the president called for plowing money into nuclear weapon modernization to make the arsenal “so strong and powerful” it would deter any acts of aggression.
Markey expressed dismay at the push, saying it would increase the risk of nuclear war.
And the Trump administration’s nuclear posture review released this month contemplates using nuclear weapons in response to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.”
Markey responded by saying, in part: “The Cold War is over.”
Through his 41-year career in Washington as a congressman and a senator, Markey has seen the nation’s fear of thermonuclear annihilation, and attention to efforts to limit the menace, ebb and flow.
All the while, he’s made the case that the proliferation of nuclear power is directly tied to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In the 1970s, Markey toured the Pilgrim nuclear power station in Plymouth and the still-being-built reactor in Seabrook, N.H., with concern. In 1979, he fought a public but unsuccessful battle for a half-year ban on the construction of new nuclear reactors.
During the Reagan era, when the president was leading the largest peacetime military buildup in history, Markey stayed in the limelight. In his Central Park appearance, he pushed for the United States and Soviet Union to freeze the buildup of nuclear weapons. His photo graced the front page of New York Times the day after the House of Representatives passed a temporary test ban of most atomic weapons, premised on the Soviets doing the same. He published a book on his broader anti-proliferation efforts entitled “Nuclear Peril.”
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, he pressed for greater oversight of power plants — including those in Massachusetts and New Hampshire — by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He expressed worry about the development of “mini nukes” in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
And, even as he’s passed laws on everything from telecommunications to the environment to the opioid crisis, fighting nuclear catastrophe has remained his lodestar.
“Markey is one of the real congressional stalwarts on this,“ said David S. Meyer, a University of California, Irvine professor, who had lunch with the then-congressman about the effort to freeze the development of nuclear weapons in 1982, and has been following his career ever since. “I can’t think of somebody who has been doing it longer and more consistently than he has.”
In the Globe interview, Markey underscored his long-held belief that no country can win a nuclear war, because such a fight will have no victor.
He pointed to an errant inbound ballistic missile alert blasted to people’s phones in Hawaii last month as evidence. After the message went out, there was much panic, but the vast majority of people did not have anywhere to go.
“There is no place to run in the event of a nuclear war,” he said. “That’s my message. You cannot fight. You cannot survive a ‘winnable’ nuclear war. That is insanity. That’s part of the old nuclear war-fighting paradigm that we worked very hard to end when military strategists used to talk about the tens of millions of deaths that we could survive, as long as we inflicted far greater damage upon the Soviet Union.”
Markey paused for a moment, his arms crossed across his chest.
“That’s why I work on these issues, because there are people out there who still think in those terms. And, unless we’re very careful right now, we’re getting closer to that day —”
He left the thought unfinished.