Synthesis/Regeneration 13   (Spring 1997)

Nuclear Madness in Space

by Karl Grossman, Professor of Journalism, SUNY

This October, there will be a countdown to an unparalleled disaster-if we let it happen. It is then that NASA intends to launch a space probe with more plutonium than ever used on a space device. It is the Cassini probe which is to carry 72.3 pounds of plutonium. And it is part of the U.S. government's push to use nuclear power in space—in the face of enormous danger, tremendous expense and non-life threatening energy alternatives like solar power and long-life fuel cells. This program is "sheer and utter madness," declares Bruce Gagnon, co-coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space.

NASA wants to launch the Cassini probe on October 6 from the Kennedy Space Center on top a Lockheed Martin-built Titan IV rocket. Titan rockets have undergone a series of mishaps including a l993 explosion in California 101 seconds after launch destroying a $1 billion spy satellite system, its fragments falling into the Pacific Ocean.

Indeed, NASA Chief Scientist Frances Cordova acknowledges that the Titan IV "does not have a l00 percent success rate" and use of it on what NASA calls its Cassini mission to Saturn "is truly putting all your eggs in one basket—your 18 instruments on one firecracker." She says, "We can't fail with that mission. It would be very, very damaging for the agency."

First there is the problem of radioactivity being spread if there is a blow-up on launch.

First there is the problem of radioactivity being spread if there is a blow-up on launch. January's explosion on launch of a Delta II rocket at the Kennedy Space Center—in which Florida residents as far off as Vero Beach, l00 miles away, were told to remain indoors to avoid falling debris after that mishap—is an example of what could occur with a Cassini launch accident.

Plutonium has long been described by scientists as the most toxic substance known. It is "so toxic," says Dr. Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, "that less than one-millionth of a gram is a carcinogenic dose. One pound, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on Earth."

Cassini's plutonium is not to be used for propulsion but as fuel in three Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTG's) to produce a modest 745 watts of electricity—the amount seven light bulbs need—for the instruments on the space probe.

Then there is the matter of the highly dangerous Earth "flyby" NASA plans for Cassini. Propulsion is to be provided by a traditional chemical source. But there is insufficient propulsion to get Cassini directly from Earth to its final destination, Saturn. So what NASA intends to do is to first send the probe to Venus, have it circle Venus twice, and then have it come hurtling back towards Earth for a fast and low "flyby" designed to use the Earth's gravity to increase Cassini's velocity so it can reach Saturn. NASA calls this a "slingshot maneuver."

The Cassini probe is supposed to buzz the Earth in August 1999 at 42,300 miles per hour and be just 312 miles high. But if after a billion miles in space there is a miscalculation and Cassini comes in too close it could burn up in the 75-mile high atmosphere, dispersing plutonium widely back on Earth.

"Approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion population," says NASA in its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Cassini Mission, "could receive 99% or more of the radiation exposure" if such an "inadvertent reentry occurred" during the flyby.

But if after a billion miles in space there is a miscalculation and Cassini comes in too close it could burn up in the 75-mile high atmosphere, dispersing plutonium widely back on Earth.

Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York, explains that "the way Cassini would burn up 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 on populated areas, if that is where the system is going to be hitting.
Pulverized as dust, the plutonium "will rain down on people's hair, people's clothing, get into people's bodies. And because it is water soluble, there is a very good chance that it could be inhaled and stay within the body causing cancer over a number of decades."

As to the death toll, NASA says in its FEIS that despite the radiation exposure it acknowledges might affect a huge number of people, only "2,300 health effects could occur over a 50-year period to this exposed population" and these "latent cancer fatalities" would "likely be statistically indistinguishable from normally occurring cancer fatalities among the world population."

". . .the truth death toll "may be as much as 30 to 40 million people."

However, Dr. Ernest Sternglass, Professor Emeritus of Radiological Physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, reviewed data contained in NASA's FEIS. Sternglass 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 10 to 20 million extra deaths." Considering these deaths, too, the truth death toll "may be as much as 30 to 40 million people."

Dr. Horst Poehler, for 22 years a scientist for NASA contractors at the Kennedy Space Center, comments: "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."

Dr. Poehler says that the claim by NASA that the plutonium fuel on Cassini will be heavily "shielded" is a lie. The covering for the plutonium is but "fingernail thin"-iridium metal three-l28ths of an inch thick, then two graphite shells each less than a quarter of an inch thick, insulating foil and then quarter-inch aluminum. "It's a joke," says Dr. Poehler, and he cites 30 NASA tests that acknowledge that plutonium in various impact situations would be released in an accident. "I support NASA when they do right things," he said, but with Cassini "they convict themselves with their own reports" which acknowledge a wide dispersal of the plutonium in the event of accidents.

Indeed, the FEIS for the Cassini Mission admits that if Cassini breaks up in the 1999 "flyby," much of the plutonium fuel would disperse as "vapor or respirable particles"—just the form in which a lethal lung cancer dose of plutonium of less than a millionth of a gram could be breathed in by many people. Dr. Poehler flatly declares that a Cassini accident involving the l999 "flyby" of Earth could be "the mother of all accidents."

And plutonium is not needed at all on Cassini. In 1994, the European Space Agency (ESA) made public a breakthrough in the development of "new high performance silicon solar cells for use in future demanding deep-space missions." It stated further in its announcement: "Until now, deep space probes had to use thermonuclear power generators, like the so-called Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTG's). As RTG's technology is not available in Europe, ESA therefore attempted to develop a power source based on very high-efficiency solar cells." And ESA did it. In what it termed a "technology milestone," it developed cells with a 25% efficiency, "the highest efficiency ever reached worldwide. . . ESA expects that the high performance silicon solar cells could profitably be used in deep space missions."

And plutonium is not needed at all on Cassini.

"If given the money to do the work, within five years the European Space Agency (ESA) could have solar cells ready to power a space mission to Saturn," the newspaper Florida Today was told by ESA physicist Carla Signorini in 1995.

There is "no question," says Dr. Kaku, that solar power and long-life fuel cells would be able to provide the small amount of electricity on Cassini that is to be produced by the highly toxic plutonium.

But NASA, the US Department of Energy's (DOE) national nuclear laboratories, and the corporations which have been involved in producing nuclear hardware for space missions, insist on sticking with nuclear on Cassini.

Nuclear reactors have been seen by the US as a source of power for the hypervelocity guns, particle beams and laser weapons on the orbiting battle platforms of Star Wars. Star Wars was predicated on the use of nuclear power in space. As Lt. General James Abrahamson, head of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization put it at the Fifth Annual Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion in Albuquerque in 1988 (according to The Albuquerque Journal) "without reactors in orbit [there's] going to have to be a long, long light cord that goes down to the surface of the Earth" bringing up power. Abrahamson said: "Failure to develop nuclear power in space could cripple efforts to deploy anti-missile sensors and weapons in orbit."

Work proceeded secretly through the 1980s on development of rockets propelled by nuclear power to loft "giant weapons and other military payloads into space," as The New York Times noted when the program was exposed in 1991. The $800 million project was code-named Timberwind. A flight-test of a Timberwind rocket was planned, mostly across Antarctica to avoid areas of human population. However, the route would also have taken Timberwind over New Zealand with Sandia National Laboratories projecting the likelihood of the atomic rocket crashing into New Zealand at 1 in 2,325.

The Clinton administration changed the name of the Strategic Defense Initiative to Ballistic Missile Defense and supposedly put an end to the Reagan administration's vision of Star Wars. But the Clinton administration has continued an annual budget of $3 billion for the endeavor and continued much of the program. Meanwhile, the Republican Congressional majority under Newt Gingrich has been seeking a major Star Wars revival as promised in their "Contract With America." The "Defend America Act" subsequently advanced by the GOP majority demanded a revived "missile defense."

Some thought that Bill Clinton, after his election in 1992, would stop the use of nuclear power in space.

Some thought that Bill Clinton, after his election in 1992, would stop the use of nuclear power in space. No way. The Clinton administration conducted a review and in 1993 issued its "National Policy on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion" which declared that "space nuclear power and propulsion systems can contribute to scientific, commercial and national security space missions."

Later that year, the Department of Energy placed a notice in the Federal Register declaring that it sought to "fund research and development studies directed at. . .identifying innovative approaches using nuclear reactor power and propulsion systems for potential future NASA, DOD (Department of Defense), and commercial space activities."

Terry Lash, Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy of DOE, in a statement in l995 before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, testified that the "purpose" of his agency's

Space and Defense Power Systems program is to produce radioisotope power systems for US civilian space missions and national security terrestrial missions. Radioisotope power systems have been used for three decades and are proven, reliable, and maintenance-free power supplies that are capable of producing up to several kilowatts of electricity for tens of years... Radioisotope power systems are the cornerstone of the Nation's space nuclear energy program... In addition, the program provides support for terrestrial Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator Applications for national security missions.

The Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space intends through a variety of planned actions-from organizing protests to circulating petitions to political activities and direct action including a sit-in this Fall on the launch pad from which NASA plans to launch Cassini-to press on sending that signal, to "continue the resistance," says Gagnon, to this "sheer and utter madness." Call (352) 468-3295 to join up with the Global Network—They need you! Call now!

An additional nuclear concern is the Russian-made Topaz II nuclear reactor used in space. Six were purchased by the U.S. originally for use in Star Wars. In recent years, they have been undergoing ground-testing at the Air Force's Phillips Laboratory in New Mexico. A flight test was supposed to be conducted in December 1995. John Stevens of Martin Marietta heralded the first Topaz flight as one that would "break down political barriers for use of nuclear in space," reported Space News, the space industry trade publication. The Topaz II flight was postponed as a result of complaints from US astronomers upset that the trail of radioactivity it would produce would interfere with astronomical readings.

A Sandia National Laboratories' safety report acknowledges that, if a Topaz II fell into the water during an accident after launch, it could undergo a runaway nuclear reaction. If it fell from orbit it "may break up on reentry." Physicist Ned S. Rasor, who has worked on US space reactor development, argues that because Topaz II would undergo "an uncontrolled nuclear reaction if immersed in water [it] is therefore unsafe for launch according to both U.S. and Russian safety standards."

Karl Grossman is an investigative reporter and Professor of Journalism at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. His books include Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed To Know About Nuclear Power and Power Crazy. The award-winning videotape he wrote and narrated, Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens, is available through EnviroVideo at (800) ECO-TV46.

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