Duck Soup: Space Casino

Plutonium-238 is the most toxic substance known to science. In all the observable universe, it is the closest thing we have found to pure poison. Next week the United States government is going to roll the plutonium dice, and your life may be on the line. Good luck!.On October 15th NASA plans to launch the Cassini Space Probe. The craft will be carrying 72.3 pounds of plutonium-238 as fuel for a nuclear generator. If just a single pound of that stuff were evenly divvied up between all of the people on earth, everyone would get lung cancer. NASA plans to put seventy-two times that quantity on top of a rocket full of explosive fuel and light the fuse. If it blows up we could have a real serious second-hand smoke problem, if you get my drift.Risk assessment is a tricky mathematical business, full of estimates and guesses and esoteric coin tossing. The rocket scientists who planned the Cassini mission think everything will be okay, saying the chance of catastrophic failure is only one in many thousands. Sure, something might go very wrong, the craft could self-destruct at exactly the worst moment and disperse plutonium that will kill a lot of people. Oh and a whole mess of other mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, insects and bacteria too, if minor trivia concern you. But they are absolutely certain that such a dire outcome isn't very likely.I hope you are reassured. I am not.To begin with the most obvious problem, consider the rocket which will carry Cassini skyward. The Titan-4 launch vehicle has a one-in-twenty failure rate. Failure of the rocket doesn't necessarily mean that plutonium will end up in your lungs, but hold on a minute! They are risking a couple of billion dollars on a mission which has a one-in-twenty chance of ending in the first ten minutes. I wouldn't drive to the grocery store if my odds were that bad. That tells me that NASA experts are gamblers whose idea of a safe bet is wildly divergent from my own.We all do risky things every day. Sometimes we even risk our lives. Driving a car, for instance, invites substantial personal peril which every driver weighs against the benefits of mobility. Medical treatments such as flu vaccine can be chancy too. You may get sick, or even die, from an injection that will probably prevent a potentially deadly disease. Added to this are public policy choices that affect us all: transport of toxic substances, or permissible levels of air pollution balance serious hazards against general benefits.My distrust of gambling scientists has been shaped by history. When the first atomic pile was detonated in Chicago over fifty years ago, some physicists believed the chain reaction would not stop -- that the little experiment could take out our whole planet. Even optimistic scientists were not absolutely certain that a runaway explosion would not ensue. They did it anyway. I suppose they kept their fingers crossed.The NASA experts who today reassure us about Cassini's safety are part of the team that told the Challenger crew that everything ought to work just fine. But a simple rubber ring was a couple of degrees colder than usual the night before the launch and parts of the Challenger are still washing up on Florida beaches. Former NASA scientists are working full time right now to warn people living near Cape Canaveral to get out of Brevard county on the day of the launch. Press reports suggest that many NASA employees have quietly made plans for their own families to leave the area as well.Whatever benefit space exploration might offer us, the risk posed by launching plutonium reactors is simply too great -- particularly when a safe alternative exists. Dr. Gerhard Strobl with the European Space Agency told a German national TV audience on June 23 that they have developed solar cell technology for deep space missions which could provide the electricity Cassini requires.Please join other concerned citizens who are contacting congressional representatives and the White House to urge cancellation of the Cassini launch. President Clinton's email address is president@whitehouse.gov. Phone him at (202) 456-1111.With thousands or millions of lives on the line, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to decide not to roll the plutonium dice.

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