Schmoke protest hits all-time high Mayor targets Saturn-bound Cassini

September 16, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

As if he didn't have enough to worry about with crime, welfar reform and suburban flight, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has a more cosmic concern: the Cassini mission to Saturn.

The mayor is part of a growing chorus of protests by anti-nuclear activists and environmentalists as NASA prepares to launch the Cassini spacecraft that will be powered by radioactive plutonium.

"It is my hope that you will intervene to question NASA officials about the potentially harmful environmental impact that could result from this project," Schmoke wrote in a letter Thursday to Vice President Al Gore.

"Unlike any other mission, a mistake on this one could have deadly effects that will be felt by people for years to come."

Schmoke forwarded the letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and to Carol M. Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

"It's one of the top issues that people are writing about," said Bill Mason, the vice president's director of correspondence, who estimated getting several hundred letters on it each week. The office had not received Schmoke's letter as of yesterday.

Cassini is to be launched in mid-October on a $3.4 billion, U.S.-European mission to study Saturn and its moons. Because the spacecraft is traveling too far from the sun to use solar power, it will instead generate electricity from 72 pounds of plutonium.

Opponents fear if an accident occurs, the highly toxic material would rain down and pollute Earth. But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration maintains that even in a worst-case scenario, the health and environmental risks would be minimal. NASA studies show fewer than 100,000 people would be exposed in an accident, and the level of radiation over 50 years would be significantly less than from average dental X-rays in one year.

Marin County, Calif., legislators passed a resolution urging NASA to halt the mission. But Schmoke may well be the first top local official in the nation to voice concern.

"I haven't heard of any mayors or governors" opposing Cassini, said Mary Beth Murrill, a spokeswoman for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. NASA, which has been fielding critical calls for months, contacted Schmoke's office yesterday and promised to provide more information to address his concerns.

Baltimore's studious, Ivy League-educated mayor said he's grown increasingly nervous about the Cassini mission since reading about it on the Internet two weeks ago.

He looked up NASA's Web sites on nuclear safety and the Cassini spacecraft but was dissatisfied by the explanations.

"The more I looked into it, the more serious it seemed," he said. "I didn't find their answers particularly persuasive."

The third-term Democrat is best known nationally for his call for drug decriminalization and support of continued federal aid to cities.

Schmoke said his interest in NASA has been long-standing, since he worked on transportation policies in the Carter White House in the late 1970s. He learned about the Cassini controversy while browsing NASA's Web sites, not from the opponents, who have posted a "Stop Cassini" home page.

The mayor hastened to add that he's devoting his energy to Baltimore's more pressing problems and only browsing the Web in his spare time.

"My head has not been in the clouds," he quipped.

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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