A Disaster Waiting to Happen

You might have heard by now that Paula Jones remembers a distinguishing mark on Bill Clinton's private parts. But perhaps you haven't heard anything of this slightly less frivolous story: NASA is proceeding with a mission that could expose up to five billion people to carcinogenic plutonium-238, widely regarded as the most toxic substance known. As is so often the case, the coverage given each of these stories is inversely proportional to its importance. The NASA story, in fact, has been so neglected that it was number one on Project Censored's Top 25 Censored News Stories of 1996. The story was published last summer in the magazine CovertAction Quarterly. In his article "Risking the World: Nuclear Proliferation in Space," Karl Grossman discussed the upcoming launch of NASA's Cassini Saturn probe.Cassini will be powered by batteries using plutonium-238, even though solar collectors could be designed to provide sufficient energy. The problem with plutonium, as Grossman pointed out, is that what goes up might come down, and if plutonium-238 comes down and burns up on reentry, it could expose billions of people to particles of the deadly toxin. Inhalation of one-millionth of a gram of plutonium-238 can cause leukemia and cancers of the lungs, bones and liver. Particles in the food or water supplies can cause intestinal cancer. Cassini will carry 72.3 pounds of plutonium.You would think plans to put plutonium on rockets deserve something in the way of debate. Events since the original story was published suggest we aren't going to get any such exchange; even discussion seems off limits. Last November a Russian Mars probe carrying half a pound of plutonium fell over South America. The reaction in the media? Mostly silence. Out of sight, out of mind, you know. Grossman discusses the event, and the troubling media reaction, in the most recent (spring) issue of CAQ. Here is the story:Race and RadiationThe Russian Mars-96 probe was launched from Kazakstan on Nov. 16 but soon failed to maintain orbit when a booster rocket misfired. The next day, U.S. officials at the Space Command headquarters in Colorado Springs reported that the spacecraft was falling, quite possibly toward central or eastern Australia. President Clinton called Australian Prime Minister John Howard to offer whatever "assets" might be necessary to clean up any contamination. All the major networks here ran stories on the possibility that plutonium would come down over Australia, and The New York Times deemed the story worthy of front-page coverage. But the following day, Space Command announced that the probe had fallen into the South Pacific. The Washington Post headline expressed relief: "Errant Russian Spacecraft Crashes Harmlessly After Scaring Australia." And the Associated Press story said the probe "overshot Australia and plunked harmlessly into the South Pacific near Easter Island." We don't know if Easter Islanders were as sanguine about the turn of events as the AP.Then on Nov. 29, Space Command admitted it had botched the tracking of the probe. (This is something we should keep in mind the next time the military-industrial complex comes begging for Star Wars money.) It was the fourth stage of the booster rocket that had fallen near Easter Island. The probe itself, with the plutonium, had fallen in a swath across northern Chile and into Bolivia on the night of Nov. 16, the night before the booster plunged into the Pacific. Space Command had evidence of this as early as Nov. 19, but didn't bother to notify anyone until the 29th. The Russians knew even earlier, but they went immediately into a "Chernobyl-style cover-up," according to James Oberg, an aerospace engineer who tracks Russian space missions. It's an interesting phrase, considering Space Command's own understated approach to the matter. This is where things get ugly, for the fact of plutonium crashing over South America was not nearly as newsworthy as the prospect of it crashing over Australia. Grossman ran a Nexis search and found only a few articles on the probe's disintegration over Chile, most of them from South American papers. In North America, the Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle and the Baltimore Sun were among the few major dailies to give a damn. A Baltimore Sun editor told Grossman he was amazed that the major papers had neglected the story. The New York Times, which found the story fascinating enough when it looked like Australia might be hit, buried the South America story in its "World News Briefs" tidbits section. The response from the U.S. government was as callous. No phone calls from President Clinton to South American officials. Instead, Chile received a "two-week old fax from somebody," according to James Oberg. According to the Boston Globe's David Chandler, "U.S. and Russian officials kept Chile and Bolivia in the dark for 11 days." Chile's director of the National Emergency Office, Alberto Marurana, told the BBC, "unlike Australia and New Zealand, the Chilean government was not warned...and we became acquainted with the Russian mission's failure through the media alone." The director of Chile's Institute for Economic Policy asked, "Are the lives of Australians worth more than the lives of [Chileans]?" They are at the Clinton Administration. There was no high-level offer from Washington of "assets" to clean things up. Instead, the South Americans were treated to an indifference summed up well by the National Security Council's Gordon Bendick, who told Grossman, "It's not the United States' responsibility to protect the world from this." Of course, we do have protective instincts, but they seldom extend beyond the Anglo-Saxon world. Russian RouletteKarl Grossman has been writing on the subject of nuclear proliferation in space for some years now. Stories of his on the subject were chosen by Project Censored in 1986, 1987 and 1989. We can't count on the mainstream media for much, but we can count on them to ignore this story. The trouble is that too many space reporters are also space boosters. There is also the unfortunate fact that two of the three major television networks are owned by corporations that have core economic interests in keeping nukes out of the news. General Electric (NBC) manufactures turbines for reactors and Westinghouse (CBS) provides engineering used in 40 percent of all nuclear plants. For whatever reasons, the mainstream media seem determined to avoid the issue and will probably continue to do so until something goes wrong, until the space program has its own Three Mile Island.So far the U.S. space program has had three accidents involving plutonium. In 1968 a Nimbus B-1 mission was aborted after a launch failure; two plutonium batteries were recovered from the Pacific Ocean. In 1970 the Apollo 13 lunar excursion module was jettisoned with 8.3 pounds of plutonium on board. According to NASA, the plutonium remains at the bottom of the Tonga Trench in the South Pacific. And, in 1964 a U.S. navigation satellite burned on reentry over the Indian Ocean, dispersing 2.1 pounds of plutonium around the world. Dr. John Gofman, a radiological physicist at University of California at Berkeley and veteran of the Manhattan Project, links that incident to an increase in the number of lung cancers. The Russians have had at least six nuclear space accidents, including the 1978 crash of Cosmos 954, a reactor-powered spy satellite that rained radioactive flakes over 124,000 square kilometers of northern Canada. Canada spent $14 million to recover one-tenth of 1 percent of the satellite's reactor core.The next opportunity for disaster comes this Oct. 6 when NASA plans to launch the Cassini Saturn probe. It will carry 72.3 pounds of plutonium as part of a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. (Pellets containing plutonium-238 release heat as the plutonium decays; the thermal energy is converted to electricity to power the probe. Plutonium-238 is used because it decays faster - is more radioactive - than the fissionable plutonium-239 used in atomic weapons. It is the rapid decay that makes plutonium-238 such a potent carcinogen.)Cassini will be launched on a Titan IV rocket, which, according to John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, has odds of failure between one in 10 and one in 20. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory puts the odds at 1 in 20. In 1993 a Titan IV blew up a minute and a half after launch. This past January a Delta II rocket blew up 13 seconds after launch, sending a multi-colored, toxic cloud of rocket fuel along Florida's east coast. Toss in 72 pounds of plutonium and those who survive the fuel cloud can worry cancer. A former senior scientist at NASA, Hoerst Poehler, says the plutonium "container is inadequate," and that it will "break up on impact" if there is a launch failure. He claims NASA is "playing Russian roulette." And Alan Kohn, who was an emergency preparedness operations officer at NASA until he retired, recently offered this advice to residents around the Kennedy Space Center: "If I had my family there, I'd get the hell out of there before that launch."A second opportunity for disaster will come twenty-two months after launch, when Cassini will hurtle toward earth for a "slingshot" maneuver, in which the earth's gravity is used to whip the probe toward Saturn. The probe is to fly by at an altitude of 312 miles, but if it drops to 75 miles - due to error or malfunction - it could reenter, burn, and spread a trail of deadly plutonium dioxide, a "potent alpha-emitting cancer producer" according to Gofman. NASA's own environmental impact statement admits that in such a reentry much of the plutonium would be released as "vapor or respirable particles." The number of people who would be at risk of exposure is five billion. That is NASA's number. As you might imagine, that number was not meant for public consumption. In its PR releases, NASA claims that the plutonium would fracture into "large, non-respirable particles and chunks."Neither NASA nor the media seem willing to allow a public debate on any of this. The crash of Mars-96 would have provided an opportunity for that debate had not the story been so efficiently buried. And it was buried with impressive efficiency: a handful of stories appeared in December but since then there has not been even one. Not one, anywhere. Where, specifically, did the plutonium actually fall? Did it break up or land intact? Is anyone looking for it? Are people in Chile or Bolivia at any risk? None of this matters to the media. Apparently plutonium showers in South America just aren't worth our bother. It's full speed ahead on nukes in space, and we probably won't get an honest discussion of the dangers until NASA scatters a few pounds of plutonium over the heads of white folk.

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