Nuclear menace in outer space Despite the risks, push for nuclear technology in space steps up

December 08, 1996|By KARL GROSSMAN

Remember that Russian space probe, the one carrying a half-pound of highly radioactive plutonium when it came crashing back to earth last month?

Initial news reports said the spacecraft fell harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 miles southeast of Easter Island, and 2,000 miles northwest of Santiago, Chile. But on Nov. 29, the U.S. Space Command reported that the probe may have scattered debris along a path that's just 20 miles away from a Chilean city. The news release, which corrected the space command's earlier prediction about where the probe fell, went virtually unnoticed by the press. It said:

"U.S. Space Command has developed new information indicating that the Russian Mars '96 spacecraft likely came down on Nov. 16 instead of Nov. 17 as earlier reported. Any debris surviving the heat of this re-entry would have fallen over a 200-mile-long portion of the Pacific Ocean, Chile and Bolivia. We now believe that the object that re-entered on Nov. 17, which we first thought to be the Mars '96 probe, was in fact the fourth stage of the booster rocket."

Plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known. Dr. Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, says plutonium is so deadly that "less than one-millionth of a gram is carcinogenic."

The space command's press release continued:

"The area where any debris surviving this re-entry could have fallen is located along an approximately 50-mile-wide and 200-mile-long path, oriented southwest to northeast. This path is centered approximately 20 miles east of the Chilean city of Iquique and includes Chilean territory, the border area of Bolivia and the Pacific Ocean."

This incident should serve as a wake-up call to the madness of launching spacecraft with radioactive material. Six of the 39 missions of the former Soviet Union have failed, including the Cosmos 954 satellite which carried radioactive fuel when it broke apart as it plunged to earth in 1978, scattering a 124,000-square-kilometer swath of northwestern Canada with nuclear debris.

Three of the 24 U.S. missions involving spacecraft with nuclear material have met with accidents, including the SNAP-9A. It fell in 1964, disintegrating as it came down. Its 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel vaporized and "dispersed worldwide," according to a report by a group of European government agencies.

Newton's Law of Gravity stands. What goes up can easily come down. And if it is a spacecraft containing plutonium, it can contaminate the air and land as it descends.

Yet the push to deploy nuclear technology in space continues; in fact, it is intensifying. In October, NASA plans to launch the Cassini probe to Saturn, carrying 72.3 pounds of plutonium fuel - the largest amount ever used on a spacecraft. The launch vehicle is a Titan IV rocket, which has been involved in a number of malfunctions, including a 1993 explosion that destroyed a billion-dollar payload - three National Security Agency spy satellites.

If the Titan IV carrying the Cassini explodes on liftoff, it could scatter plutonium over a wide area of Florida and cause thousands of cancer deaths. Much of the world's population would be exposed to radiation if the spacecraft plunges into Earth's 75-mile-high atmosphere during a "sling-shot maneuver" in 1999.

To gain enough velocity to travel to Saturn, the spacecraft will orbit Venus twice and come speeding back toward Earth at 42,300 miles per hour. Passing just 312 miles above the Earth, it will swing around the planet using centrifugal force to sling it toward Saturn. A slight miscalculation could result in an inadvertent re-entry and subsequent radiation exposure affecting "approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population," according to NASA's "Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Cassini Mission."

Dr. Horst Poehler, a 22-year veteran of working for NASA contractors at the Kennedy Space Center, says the shielding for the plutonium on Cassini is "fingernail thin. It's a joke." Of the Cassini mission, he says: "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."

NASA officials say the mission poses an acceptable risk. An environmental impact statement released by NASA in 1994 estimated the risk of the probe's hitting Earth during its fly-past in 1999 as 1-in-1.3 million and said there was a 1-in-900 chance of radioactive release during launch.

The use of plutonium on the $3.4 billion Cassini mission and the horrific danger it represents is unnecessary. The European Space Agency (ESA) announced in 1994 what it called a "technological milestone" - the development of high-efficiency solar cells to generate the modest amount of electricity needed for deep space probes like Cassini. As ESA physicist told the newspaper Florida Today last year that if given the money to do the work, ESA "within five years could have solar cells ready to power a space mission to Saturn."

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