Rocketing Toward Disaster
On Aug. 16, 1999, if all goes according to schedule, the Cassini deep-space probe will swing by the Earth 312 miles above the surface at a speed of 43,000 miles per hour on its way to Saturn. Generating power for its payload of scientific instruments will be 72.3 pounds of plutonium-238. If all goes well, the probe will only be within Earth's gravitational field long enough to get a velocity boost that will ensure it reaches Saturn on schedule.If something goes wrong, however, up to 60 percent of the Earth's population could end up paying for the mistake with their lives. And that's a conservative estimate.Opponents of the use of nuclear material in space say that, should the California-built Cassini inadvertently re-enter Earth's atmosphere, the burn-up and disintegration of the spacecraft would create a plutonium cloud over most of the planet. A popular example of the toxicity of plutonium in the air, attributed to Dr. Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, is that one pound of Pu-239 (a "safer" plutonium than Pu-238, which is an isotope 280 times more radioactive than its weapons-grade brother) evenly distributed throughout the atmosphere would cause lung cancer in every person on Earth. What could happen when more than 72 pounds of super-toxic Pu-238 is distributed through the atmosphere is open to broad speculation ranging from being merely dangerous to being biblically catastrophic."When you're talking about plutonium, it's the most toxic substance in the universe," says Karl Grossman, a professor of journalism at State University of New York who has been researching the use of nuclear materials in space for the better part of 10 years. He's the author of Power Crazy and Cover Up: What You're Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power. And he wrote and narrated the 1995 TV documentary Nukes in Space: the Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens, which had one of its first screenings at Boulder's Naropa Institute in July 1995. "Less than a millionth of a pound is a lethal dose. It makes arsenic look like you'd need a lot of it."In a worse-case scenario that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deems "unlikely" in its final environmental impact study for the Cassini mission, a majority of the world population, "approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population at the time of the swingby, could receive as much as 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure" if the probe was pulled back to the surface of the Earth.But, for a variety of reasons, none of this deters NASA from using plutonium to power deep-space probes. Grossman and others are convinced that it will take a disastrous accident before the agency would change its mind. And of course, by that time, it would be too late to mean much."I've been speaking on this issue for 10 years and it seems obvious that inevitably you're going to have an accident," says Grossman. "What goes up often comes down -- it's Newton's Law of Gravity -- and it'll come down on people's heads. You put nuclear shit in it, people are going to end up real fucked."WAKE-UP CALLOn Nov. 16, a Russian four-stage SL-12 Proton rocket booster carrying the Mars-96 orbiter -- and about six ounces of plutonium fuel for instrumentation -- lifted off from Russia's Tyuratem launch facility. Early the next day, it was obvious that the rocket failed to achieve its intended trajectory, and Cable News Network, based on information from the U.S. Space Command in Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, was predicting a fall to Earth somewhere near Australia. The risk of health hazards due to the plutonium on board was "very slight," according to the newscast, but this assessment seems to have been based more on public relations spin control than hard facts. In truth, no one knows what health effects the crash could have.The disclaimer was hardly reassuring to people like Grossman. "If that thing would have come smack down in the Sydney area with a couple of million people and it all got around, people would have been infected. And it isn't like arsenic or DDT where you can neutralize it. I mean, that shit'll be around for hundreds of years."But despite reports to the contrary, the Mars-96 probe didn't land in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles from land. "When the U.S. Space Command here put their equipment together tracking the so-called payload of this Russian mission -- well, it turns out they totally blew the call," says Bill Sulzman, director of the Colorado Springs-based Citizens for Peace in Space. "They said the thing landed a whole day later than it actually had. They never really admitted their error."As it turns out, the U.S. Space Command Space Surveillance Network was tracking the wrong debris: a relatively harmless booster stage re-entry. Thirteen days after the launch, the agency issued a press release stating that the debris of the probe and its plutonium had actually landed somewhere along a 200-mile swath centered near Iquique, Chile, and extending to the border of Bolivia. No one knows if the plutonium fuel disintegrated or remained intact."Nobody the fuck knows," says Grossman. "It's not like if you set off an atomic bomb where you can tell with seismic testing that it went off."Either way, it's still a potentially deadly situation for the people of Chile, with a population of 14 million, and Bolivia. The governments of both nations have been notified of the potential for health hazards, but Chilean officials didn't return phone calls by press time inquiring what, if anything, was being done about the situation."Obviously, the pollution has a remoteness from human beings (if it had fallen in the ocean)," says Sulzman. "If it fell there -- plutonium lasts basically forever -- you're just delaying whenever it might come into contact with the fish life or plant life where it will go up into the food chain. Of course, if it comes down in an area where it's more populated, there's the chance of more immediate exposure if something like a cloud is created or if it goes into the soil or into the air near the ground. Then there would be some long-term exposure to the radiation."But, he adds, "all that information is just scientific guesswork."Such an accident, say Grossman and Sulzman, should act as a wake-up call to those involved in the Cassini project, whose 72 pounds of plutonium represents the largest amount of nuclear material ever launched into space. But by all indications, the Russian mishap and its related, as-yet-unknown health effects, haven't caused so much as a blip on the Cassini team's schedule.The countdown for its launch from Cape Canaveral in October 1997 continues without delay.Problems? What problems? Cassini doesn't have enough power to make it all the way to Saturn without the aid of "gravity-assisted fly-bys" of Venus, Earth and Jupiter. Once in orbit around the ringed planet in 2004, the spacecraft will drop a European-built probe into the atmosphere of the moon Titan to study its atmosphere. Cassini will continue to orbit Saturn for about four years, studying its rings and satellites in detail.According to Dick Spehalski, Cassini program manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the risk of catastrophic global death due to a re-entry crash is so slight as to be nearly non-existent. And the mission is too important and too far along to delay while waiting for solar cell technology to become an efficient and viable alternative. Proponents of using plutonium in space say that present solar cell technology is inadequate to provide enough electricity to a destination so far from the sun. Also, in addition to waiting an indeterminate amount of time for the equipment to be refined, it might be quite some time before Venus, Earth and Jupiter are again aligned to properly allow gravity assisted fly-bys.On top of that, it's unnecessary to wait: According to Spehalski, there is less than one in a million chance of Cassini re-entering the Earth's atmosphere."We bias the aiming point for flying by Earth so that should something happen to the spacecraft so that it wouldn't work right, the probability of encountering the Earth's atmosphere is down to one in a million or less and that includes failures on board the spacecraft that would cause that to happen. We have imposed on ourselves a requirement that we be no greater than one in a million for that event."And, on the off chance that the spacecraft did crash to Earth, the plutonium on board is combined with oxygen to create a ceramic-like material that would prevent it from creating a cloud of "respirable fines," or pulverized plutonium dust, he says."No one questions that plutonium is a toxic substance. However the kinds of things that the anti-nuclear community will not point out is the fact that we make a lot of effort to ensure that we use it safely. Its effect on people is bad if you inhale it, (but) it's sort of like dropping a coffee cup on a table or floor. It'll shatter, but you won't get much in the way of dust that's breathable -- though there is some finite distribution."There's a potential for some human beings getting cancer over a period of 50 years (if Cassini crashes). If you compare that to people who would normally get cancer, it's a small, small change in what would normally happen anyhow. That's a very touchy subject. It's hard to say anybody getting cancer is acceptable; you don't want that to happen. If you look at that additional dose, it's very small compared to what people would get anyhow just by living on the Earth."Indeed, even though NASA estimates that 5 billion people could potentially be affected with nearly all the radiation from the plutonium during a re-entry accident, the report goes on to guess that only 2,300 people would actually die from it. Others aren't so optimistic.In fact, Grossman was so dubious of the NASA death estimates that he took them to Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who concluded that NASA underestimated the cancer deaths by about 2,000 to 4,000 times. "Which means that not counting all the other causes of death -- infant mortality, heart disease, immune deficiency diseases and all that -- we're talking in the order of 10 to 20 million extra deaths," Sternglass says.In fact, though Spehalski claims "none of us would want to be involved with a project we didn't think was safe," there's evidence that Cassini is causing health complications even before being set on the launch pad. According to an Associated Press report earlier this year, radioactive contamination of workers and equipment at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory rose between 1993 and 1996. The reason: assembly of Cassini's radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which will turn the heat of decaying Pu-238 into electricity. According to a 29-page annual report cited in the article, the "collective dose" for the entire facility was 43 percent greater than the target level the lab committed itself to earlier this decade.3, 2, 1 Of even greater concern than a crash during the 1999 high-velocity slingshot maneuver is the launch itself. The Cassini probe, and its toxic payload, will fire into space atop a Lockheed-Martin Titan IV-Centaur booster rocket, America's largest and most powerful expendable launch vehicle. Of 18 Titan IV launches, 17 were a complete success.But the one failure is enough to cause a great deal of concern to those critical of the mission. On Oct. 2, 1993, hot gases from burning fuel melted a repair job on one of the Titan's booster rockets. The rocket exploded shortly after lift-off, destroying its classified Department of Defense payload, suspected to have been a billion dollar spy satellite."What would happen to the U.S. space program if Cassini blew up on the launch pad and you couldn't go to Disney World for the next 2,000 years?" Grossman asks rhetorically. "I mean this is outrageous. This isn't just seven brave astronauts you're talking about; it's 70,000 to 7 billion people cashing in."Though a Lockheed-Martin representative says there is no reason at all to worry about something similar happening with Cassini (since the incident, the company no longer accepts rocket parts from the manufacturer that require repairs upon receipt), both Grossman and Sulzman say there is no way to accurately determine the chances of failure in almost any launch situation. For example, Grossman says figures he received from NASA prior to the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion showed a one in 100,000 chance of failure. Shortly after the tragedy, the estimate was revised to one in 76. The point, he says, is that proper data is unobtainable without empirical evidence -- such as a disaster similar to that of the Challenger."Launch failures continue to happen not on the basis of one in so many thousand -- they continue to happen on a fairly regular basis," says Sulzman. "A Titan dumped a billion dollar satellite into the Pacific Ocean. It happens in real time and it happens on the basis of odds of (about) a dozen to one. The Russians, as long as they've been launching things, still can't eliminate the risk."Of 24 known U.S. space missions that used some sort of nuclear power, three have failed, their radioactive power sources ditched somewhere back to Earth, including the Apollo 13 mission to the moon which carried 8.3 pounds of plutonium. That's a failure rate of 13 percent. The Russian failure rate is slightly higher -- at about 18 percent.One of the three U.S. failures, the 1961 crash of a navigational satellite, dispersed 2.1 pounds of Pu-238 into the atmosphere. In a 1989 European report titled Emergency Preparedness for Nuclear Powered Satellites, scientists reported finding debris from the satellite "to be present at all continents and all latitudes" after conducting a worldwide sampling.Perhaps more frightening is the fact that the next shuttle mission after the Challenger explosion was to put the Ulysses spacecraft in orbit around the sun. To complete its mission, the craft was to carry 25 pounds of plutonium - which would have made the entire southeastern portion of the United States radioactive if Ulysses had been bumped forward one flight.A STATE OF DENIALBy almost all odds, the Cassini mission is destined for success. The autumn launch will likely make the evening news and, assuming it's error-free, will add another favorable notch to Lockheed's Titan program. Two years later, the spacecraft will zoom overhead without many people on Earth even being aware of it. And as a result, scientists will be able to add to their body of knowledge about the planets in the solar system.Although a flawless mission is what everyone hopes for, it will continue to encourage confidence in using plutonium in space. And, according to Grossman, it's only a matter of time before that confidence leads to disaster."I'd say it's inevitable," he says. "With all the stuff they plan to do in space with nuclear material it's absolutely inevitable that there will be a disaster and it's going to be a fucking disaster like you wouldn't believe. Colossal. Because they're using plutonium, they're using the most toxic isotope of plutonium, there's always a failure rate, rockets are always blowing up, satellites are always coming down, and they're throwing in this toxic stuff. And the shame is that they should use solar."Contributing to plutonium's continued use over solar sources is the fact that America's so-called Star Wars space defense project, which achieved infamy during the Reagan era, is still being actively pursued. The 1993 National Policy on Space and Nuclear Power and Propulsion specifically indicates that "national security" and the Department of Defense benefit from the use of nuclear technology in space; Falcon Air Force Base in Colorado Springs is home to the national Space Warfare Center; and Phillips Laboratories, the U.S. Air Force's premier laboratory is, according to its literature, dedicated to the development of an orbital "war fighter" and "is helping control space for the United States."Add to the equation the facts that until recently General Electric made the radioisotope thermoelectric generators for NASA, that most of the world's nuclear power plants were designed by either GE or Westinghouse, and that both of those corporations own more than half the national media outlets, there seems little chance that the dangers associated with using nukes in space will ever be given the attention it deserves. Until something goes wrong, that is."The Department of Energy lab people never really wanted to admit that plutonium is kind of a mistake that we've made," says Sulzman. "We've created a substance so toxic that every time we mess with it, we have leftovers that are very toxic. They just don't want to admit 'okay shut down the plutonium thing, quit using it for power, quit using it for space launches.' They've got to be proven wrong and they want to sort of ignore the fact that you can have these launch accidents. It's sort of a denial thing on their part."They're just going to make this plutonium thing work."