U.S. Launching Lethal Plutonium Into Space

Despite tremendous danger, huge expense and a clear alternative, the U.S. government is pushing ahead with plans to deploy nuclear power in space. In October, NASA will launch the Cassini space probe to Saturn carrying 72.3 pounds of lethal plutonium, long described by scientists as the most toxic substance known. Should something go awry, billions of people on Earth could be affected.While the $3.4 billion mission is among a number of space projects using nuclear power planned by the U.S., Cassini will carry a record amount of plutonium. The plutonium will be used as a fuel in three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) to produce electricity to run the space probe's instruments. But the probe, itself, is to be launched on a Titan IV rocket. Titans have undergone a series of mishaps in recent years.In 1993, a Titan IV blew up 101 seconds after launch from Vanderberg Air Force Base in California, blasting to smithereens an $800 million spy satellite system it was lofting. Industry consensus was that the rocket was erratic. "The Titan frequently is referred to by its misnomer, the workhorse launcher," said the space industry publication Space News. ""But it has proven to be more of a temperamental and ornery show horse."Even if the Cassini successfully launches on October 6, an even more potentially lethal scenario lies ahead: In August 1999, NASA intends to have Cassini hurtle back for an Earth "flyby," coming within 312 miles of the Earth's surface.Because Cassini does not have the propulsion power to get directly from Earth to Saturn, NASA plans to send the probe to Venus, have it circle Venus twice and then come flying back at 42,300 miles per hour towards Earth to do the flybyby. The idea: to use the Earth's gravity to increase the velocity of Cassini so it can reach its destination of Saturn.After traveling more than a billion miles in space already, any miscalculation in it's path back around Earth could cause what NASA in its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the mission calls an "inadvertent reentry." Translation: the probe would fall into the 75-mile high Earth atmosphere, disintegrating and releasing the plutonium. NASA admits --albeit reticently -- that "approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population at the time ... could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure."On the other hand, NASA's public relations machine claims the plutonium on Cassini would be contained in any "flyby" accident. PR representatives stress that the plutonium is in heavily shielded modules, even though the Environmental Impact Statement says a sizable amount of the 72.3 pounds of plutonium on Cassini would likely be released as "vapor or respirable particles." This would maximize the health impacts -- plutonium is most dangerous if inhaled as dust."The way Cassini would burn up," explains Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York, is "as it flies by Earth ... if there is a small misfire [of Cassini's] rocket system, it will mean that they will penetrate into the Earth's atmosphere and the sheer friction will begin to wipe out the heat shield and it will, like a meteor, flame into the Earth's atmosphere...."This thing, coming down into the Earth's atmosphere, will vaporize, release the payload and then particles of plutonium dioxide will begin to rain down." Dr. Kaku says that plutonium particles inhaled by people will, because plutonium "is not water soluble," lodge in peoples' lungs "causing cancer over a number of decades."Dr. Horst Poehler, a scientist who worked for 22 years for NASA contractors at the Kennedy Space Center, maintains the NASA's "heavily shielded modules" are, in fact, "fingernail thin" and a flyby accident would turn out to be "the mother of all accidents." Declares Dr. Poehler: "Remember the old Hollywood movies when a mad scientist would risk the world to carry out his particular project? Well, those mad scientists have moved to NASA."As for the death toll of a Cassini "flyby" accident, NASA says in its Final Environmental Impact Statement that despite the radiation exposure which, it acknowledges, could impact billions of people, only 2,300 cancer deaths would "occur over a 50-year period to this exposed population."However, outside experts have weighty evidence to the contrary:*Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, after his review of the data contained in NASA's Final Environmental Impact Statement, said that "they underestimate the cancer alone 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 ten to twenty million extra deaths." Considering the additional potential causes of death, the total death toll "may be as much as thirty to forty million people."*Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of California at Berkeley, says just the amount of plutonium NASA admits could be dispersed in a "flyby" accident "represents an astronomical quantity of a potent alpha-emitting cancer producer. The number of cancer doses is so high as to make calculations extraneous. Scientists and engineers in control of their faculties would surely have eliminated this project from their agenda. Yet it appears that is not the case."*Dr. Helen Caldicott, a founder and president emeritus of Physicians for Social Responsibility, says NASA fails to understand the especially dangerous characteristics of plutonium and the health impacts from "chronic, long-term "exposure. This is incredibly deadly stuff." And NASA has drastically underestimated the impact by basing it on an "average dose for the overall world population," not providing for those who would receive larger doses of plutonium.*A dispersal of plutonium from Cassini "would be a terrible event," said Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, one of the first five health physicists in the world, often described as the "father" of health physics and former director of the Health Physics Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Each of these plutonium particles would deliver a terrific dose -- hundreds or thousands of rems -- to the tissue close up against the particle. There would be numerous cancers as a result."Ignoring the AlternativesMoreover, plutonium-power is not necessary for the Cassini mission. Solar photovoltaic energy could substitute to generate the mere 745 watts of electricity that the plutonium-powered system is to provide. Other nations certainly have avoided the risk.The European Space Agency (ESA), for instance, announced in 1994 a "technology milestone," a "breakthrough" in "high efficiency" photovoltaic solar cells specifically for use on deep space probes. Declared the ESA announcement: "Under contract with ESA, European industry has recently developed high efficiency solar cells for use in future demanding deep space missions." The new solar cells reach a 25 percent efficiency "under deep space conditions," stressed ESA. "The 25 percent mark represents the highest efficiency ever reached worldwide."Added ESA physicist Carla Signorini: "If given the money to do the work, within five years the European space agency could have solar cells ready to power a space mission to Saturn," she told the newspaper "Florida Today" in 1995.And last month, at a conference in Darmstadt, Germany on the use of nuclear power in space, Dr. Gerhard Strobl of the German company that developed the high-efficiency solar system for ESA, Angewandte Solarenergia-ASE, said his firm's solar cells could produce adequate power for the Cassini mission although the space probe would have to be redesigned.In short, by not using solar power for the Cassini mission, "NASA is putting ideology ahead of the laws of physics because the amount of energy that you could generate from solar cells is clearly sufficient to energize Cassini," said Dr. Kaku. "We are only speaking about a modest amount of electricity. It is well within engineering specifications to use solar cells and, if necessary, fuel cells -- batteries -- to supply the electricity needed. But NASA is ideologically committed to using nuclear." City University's Dr. Kaku acknowledged that "retrofitting Cassini with solar cells would cost more and might delay the mission a bit, yet that is a small price to pay for the lives of people who could be killed if there is a tragedy."Yet NASA, along with other proponents of a nuclear Cassini mission -- the U.S. Department of Energy, the DOE's national nuclear laboratories, Lockheed Martin, the company which in 1993 acquired the GE division which for decades produced RTGs -- insist on sticking with atomic power on Cassini.NASA said in its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission acknowledges that the European "cells thus far have tested favorably under simulated environments." An analysis by its engineers, says NASA, showed they provide "improved performance." But, NASA says, "greatly increased turn times and greater operational complexity and programmatic risk associated with an all-solar Cassini design makes such a design, from both mission engineering and scientific perspective, infeasible.""Infeasible?" comments Dr. Kaku. "Using solar on Cassini is only infeasible if safety is not the primary concern."Leading the ChargeLeading the challenge to the Cassini mission is the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space based in Gainesville, Fla. Bruce Gagnon, a co-coordinator of the Global Network, says an additional reason "beyond pressure from DOE, the national nuclear laboratories and Lockheed Martin and the nuclear industry" that NASA insists on using nuclear power on Cassini is "the military connection."The Pentagon, notes Global Network co-coordinator Bill Sulzman, is seeking to use nuclear power for weaponry in space. NASA, seeing its funding shrink with the end of the Apollo moon missions of the l960s and the early l970s, began coordinating its operations with the Pentagon to keep its funding up, and continues to "work in step with the military."The U.S. Air Force, notes Sulzman, in its current planning statements stresses space as a high ground. He points to Colonel Mike Heil of the Air Force's Phillips Laboratory, a research and development facility, declaring in an interview earlier this year that "yesterday's high ground of remote ridge lines and distant hilltops has a modern corollary: space. Our technologies are the ladder that enable military commanders, now and in the future, to reach that ultimate high ground."General Joseph W. Ashy, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Space Command, told Aviation Week & Space Technology recently how the U.S. Air Force intended to "expand into" space. "We will engage terrestrial targets someday -- ships, airplanes, land targets -- from space. We will engage targets in space, from space ... It's politically sensitive, but it's going to happen. Some people don't want to hear this, and it sure isn't in vogue ... but -- absolutely -- we're going to fight in space. We're going to fight from space and we're going to fight into space."As for the energy for the weaponry that the U.S. military would like to see used in space -- such as laser weapons, particle beams and hypervelocity guns -- an Air Force report issued last year and obtained by Sulzman, a report entitled "New World Vistas," said there were "power limitations" for space weapons today. "A natural technology to enable high power is nuclear power in space," asserted the Air Force report. "Setting the emotional issues of nuclear power aside, this technology offers a viable alternative for large amounts of power in space."The Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars as structured during the Reagan administration was premised on orbiting battle platforms with such nuclear-powered weaponry. The Clinton administration changed the name of the Strategic Defense Initiative to Ballistic Missile Defense but retained a multi-billion budget: $4 billion in the coming fiscal year. It has continued a commitment to nuclear power in space declaring in a 1993 policy statement that "space nuclear power and propulsion systems can contribute to scientific, commercial and national security space missions."In September 1996, the Clinton administration ordered a development program for nuclear-propelled rockets for military and civilian uses. The Defense Special Weapons Agency is to work on "multiple nuclear propulsion concepts," according to a front page article in Space News.Other U.S. space nuclear projects:* A scheme to rocket high-level nuclear waste into space was unveiled by scientists from Brookhaven National Laboratory at the Annual Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion held in Albuquerque, New Mexico in January 1997. Sending high-level nuclear waste into space was an idea earlier considered by the U.S. government but rejected -- up until now -- because of a concern about a rocket carrying such waste blowing up on launch or undergoing an accident after launch and crashing back down, dousing the Earth with the atomic waste.* Sandia National Laboratories is embarked on a program to develop nuclear-powered satellites to beam down to Earth "high-definition, multi-channel television" signals. "Described as a pathway to making the United States a global telecommunications superpower, the Sandia proposal would pair controversial space nuclear power with entertainment and communications on demand," according to The Albuquerque Tribune.* The U.S. Air Force has been studying the use of nuclear reactors to "provide power and propulsion for military satellites," according to "Space News". The "bi-modal" nuclear spacecraft would serve both as a "propulsion system and for electric power."* NASA is planning to launch a pair of plutonium-fueled space probes for a mission to Pluto in 1999.* What "Space News" described as "an aerospace industry alliance" has come up with" a scheme to build a "high-powered" nuclear communications satellite. Lockheed Martin mission has been leading a consortium of seven firms, including a Russian company, on this project.Meanwhile, NASA looking into nuclear-powered colonies on the moon and on Mars."Nuclear energy in outer space," says Dr. Kaku, "is the linchpin" of the U.S. space program. "What we are headed for is a nuclear-propelled rocket with nuclear-propelled lasers in outer space. That's what the military and that's what NASA would really like to do ... First we have small little reactors called the SNAP reactors. Then we have the RTGs and Galileo and Cassini ... And ultimately what they would like to do is have nuclear-powered battle stations in outer space. That's what all of this is leading up to."Gagnon says: "Our concern is that the United States military and major weapons corporations view space as a new market, ultimately to profit from. They are using taxpayers' dollars to put a new round of the arms race in space. At the same time the nuclear power industry views space as its new market, a place where they can put plutonium and other radioactive sources, whether it's on military missions or civilian inter-planetary missions ... What is needed now is for the American public to speak out."SIDEBAR:History of FailuresThe use of nuclear power in space has been plagued by accidents. In 1964 a SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) RTG dropped from the sky burning up in the Earth's atmosphere as it fell. The 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel it had onboard vaporized and "dispersed worldwide," according to a publication called Emergency Preparedness for Nuclear- Powered Satellites issued in 1990 by a grouping of European nuclear agencies. "A worldwide sampling program carried out in 1970 showed SNAP-9A debris to be present at all continents and at all latitudes," it said.Dr. Gofman, an M.D. and Ph. D. who did early scientific work with plutonium, has long pointed to the SNAP-9A accident as a cause of increased lung cancer on Earth.There have been three accidents out of the 25 known U.S. space missions involving nuclear power. The Soviet and now Russian failure rate has been the same: about 15 percent. That includes the Soviet Cosmos satellite which in 1978 disintegrated as it crashed to Earth over northwest Canada leaving a swath of nuclear debris over tens of thousands of square miles.Last year there was the fiery crash of the Russian Mars 96 space probe carrying a half pound of plutonium on Chile and Bolivia. The probe, according to eyewitnesses, broke apart as it fell. John Van der Brink, who had just retired from the European Southern Observatory in Chile, was out in the mountains of northern Chile on the night of November 16 watching meteors when he saw what was clearly "a piece of space debris [with] sparkling bits sort of coming off the back of it" falling to Earth. "This was an extraordinarily spectacular event."Leo Alvarado, a post-graduate student of geology from the Universidad Catolica del Norte, who had been driving with four other geology students across the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, saw it, too, changing colors as it came down. "We watched it break up into many pieces and burn."The Chilean government is investigating the health impacts of the probe's fall.Recent U.S. space probe missions involving plutonium-fueled RTGs were Galileo (with 50 pounds of plutonium onboard) launched in 1989, and Ulysses (with 25 pounds) in 1990. Indeed, carrying up Ulysses and its plutonium was to be the next mission of the ill-fated Challenger in 1986. After the Galileo launch, in response to a Freedom of Information Act about the alternatives to using nuclear power on Galileo, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory released reports acknowledging that solar power could have substituted for nuclear power on that mission to Jupiter. "Based on the current study, it appears that a Galileo Jupiter orbiting mission could be performed with a concentrated photovoltaic solar array power source without changing the mission sequence or impacting science objectives," one report began.


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