NUKES IN SPACE: The Final Frontier?
NASA To Launch Nuclear-Powered Space Probe
By Daniel Chong


On October 6, 1997, NASA is planning a launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida of a space probe with 72.3 pounds of deadly plutonium-238 aboard. The probe is called the "Cassini," and it will use the plutonium to power its electrical instruments during its voyage to explore the planet Saturn.

As Dr. Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility states, "plutonium is so toxic that less than one-millionth of a gram, an invisible particle, is a carcinogenic dose. One pound, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on earth."(1)

Yet NASA would load 72.3 pounds of plutonium ‹ the most that has ever been used on a space device - on the Cassini mission to explore Saturn.

How could plutonium be released and kill people? There are two key periods of extreme danger: 1) The Cassini probe will be taken into space on a Titan IV rocket. If this rocket explodes on the launch pad or in the atmosphere, as the space shuttle Challenger did in 1986, then it is possible that the lethal plutonium could spread across wide areas of Florida.

2) If there is no mishap during the launch, the Cassini probe will be sent into space once the Titan IV achieves orbit. Because Cassini's propulsion source doesn't have the power to send it straight to Saturn, NASA plans to send it to Venus first, and then, after two swings around Venus, have Cassini and its 72.3 pounds of plutonium hurtle right back toward earth. The idea is to use the earth's gravity to increase Cassini's velocity so that it can pass by Jupiter and then to Saturn. Cassini is to pass just 312 miles above earth in what NASA calls a "slingshot maneuver" or "flyby." But too deep a descent could cause Cassini to disintegrate in the earth's 75-mile-high atmosphere. Then, according to City University of New York nuclear physics professor, Dr. Michio Kaku, the plutonium - "the most toxic chemical known to science" - would "shower down with a tremendous tragedy for the people of the earth."

NASA claims that the plutonium on board the Cassini probe has almost no chance of contaminating the earth. They say that the Titan IV rocket won't crash either during takeoff or the "flyby."

However, the Titan IV rocket is the same kind of rocket that on August 2, 1993, exploded over the Pacific Ocean destroying its payload containing a $1 billion U.S. spy satellite system. Indeed, three of the 24 known U.S. space missions involving nuclear power have met with accidents, as well as six out of the 39 Russian missions. Space missions are clearly not as safe as NASA would like the public to believe. John Pike, head of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, estimates the odds for failure of a Titan IV rocket are "between one in ten and one in twenty." (2) NASA also reported remote odds for failure, one in 100,000, before the 1986 Challenger space shuttle mission. After the mission, of course, they drastically altered those odds to one is 76. Do we want to trust all of our lives to NASA's gamble?

NASA claims that even if the Titan IV rocket crashes or disintegrates in the atmosphere, the radioisotope thermal generator (RTG) containers which hold the plutonium will not explode, keeping the radioactive substance in a safe form.

However, NASA's own research brings that claim into question. In a Final Safety Analysis Report, General Electric (makers of the RTG) conducted a test which "resulted in the complete destruction of the RTG." Deciding that the conditions of the test could not be replicated in the real world, NASA chose to ignore the results in their safety evaluation.3 Indeed, the release of plutonium during a nuclear space crash has probably already occurred at least twice. On April 21, 1964, NASA's SNAP-9A nuclear device fell to earth, disintegrated in the atmosphere, and its 2.1 pounds of plutonium were released into the air. Scientists later conducted samples around the world and found "SNAP-9A debris to be present on all continents and all latitudes."4 Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley and former member of the Manhattan Project, attributes an increased rate of lung cancer around the world to the SNAP-9A incident.5

But this was not the only nuclear space crash in recent history. In November 1996, a Russian Mars probe fell from space somewhere over or near Chile (despite assurances that it had fallen "harmlessly" in the Pacific Ocean). Chilean observers and scientists reported that they saw the probe burn up in the atmosphere, which means it would have likely released a half-pound of plutonium into the air. With a history of such accidents, evidence of failures, and the lack of public control over information, can we trust 72.3 pounds of plutonium in NASA's latest space probe?

NASA reports that if the worst-case scenario occurs - the rocket disintegrates in the atmosphere and the plutonium is released - "approximately five billion of the seven to eight billion people on earth in 1999 could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure."6 NASA then estimates that in 50 years, roughly 2,300 people would develop lung cancer and die from inhaling that plutonium.

However, NASA's estimate of what it labels the "health effects" of an explosion may be grossly and tragically understated. Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh, has determined that NASA used inappropriate methods to estimate the number of deaths that would be caused. NASA based their estimate on high-level radiation standards derived from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing. But more recent evidence suggests that low-level radiation, the kind to which people would be exposed if Cassini disintegrated, presents a far greater danger.7 Sternglass warns that the actual death toll from plutonium exposure may be as high as 30 to 40 million people.

Thirty to forty mission people? Even if the odds of an accident are small, is this what NASA is willing to risk to further its space program?

NASA claims that a nuclear-powered Cassini probe is the only option available to reach Saturn. However, NASA's own Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) essentially refutes this claim. The plutonium on board the space probe is only to be used as a power source to produce electricity for instruments on the probe, not for propulsion. In preparation for the Galileo mission (a previous space probe containing the RTG-encased plutonium), NASA also claimed that nuclear power was the only method available. Yet just a few weeks after the launch, JPL was forced through the Freedom of Information Act to release a report which stated that the mission could have been performed with solar power "without changing the mission sequence or impacting science objectives."(8) NASA lied before the Galileo launch about the need to use plutonium.

In fact, solar power could be used on the Cassini mission if NASA desired. In 1994, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced the development of new high-performance solar cells. ESA physicist Carla Signorini stated, "If given the money to do the work, within five years (ESA) could have solar cells ready to power a space mission to Saturn."(9)

If the Cassini mission can be performed safely with solar power, why is NASA taking such a large risk by using deadly plutonium?

Of course, the cost in terms of potential risk to human life is large enough. NASA should not even be considering a dangerous nuclear launch if a viable alternative such as solar power is available. Nevertheless, the public should be aware that the Cassini mission is projected to consume $3.4 billion in tax dollars.

An additional cost to human society is that the Cassini mission will help to develop technology and public support for the nuclear militarization of space. The U.S. Space Command is already preparing itself for a future of U.S. military control in space, which would depend upon the ability to use nuclear reactors in space as a power source for hypervelocity guns, particle beams and laser weapons on battle platforms.

The prospect of nuclear-powered weapons stations in space is anathema to those who wish to preserve human life and create a peaceful society.

1. Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Madness. New York: Norton Books. 1994, p.81.
2. Quoted in Chris Bryson, "Cassini - NASA's Milennial Nuclear Nightmare," Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 17, 1996.
3. Final Safety Analysis Report for the Galileo Mission. Prepared by General Electric Astro Space for the U.S. Department of Energy. Volume II, Book 2, Dec. 15, 1988, p. G-5.
4. Karl Grossman, "Risking the World: Nuclear Proliferation in Space," Covert Action Quarterly, Summer 1996, p. 60.
5. Ibid., p. 61
6. Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission. Solar System Exploration Division, Office of Space Science, NASA, June 1995, pp. 4-76.
7. Bryson, "Cassini"
8. Grossman, "Risking the World,"
p. 62.
9. Ibid., p. 58.
(Reprinted with permission from Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice)

Many citizens and activists are fighting to stop the alliance of aeronautical corporations, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Energy from developing nuclear power in space. Through protests, petitions and other political activities, they are working to prevent Cassini from being launched.

A leading organization in these efforts is the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. It can provide you with a list of actions you can take to stop the Cassini probe and other dangerous space missions.

Contact the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice at P.O. Box 90035, Gainesville, FL 32607 or phone (352-468-3295.

You can also e-mail them , or check out their Web site

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