Cassini mission blast-off Nuclear powered: Objections to the Saturn flight overstate the dangers.

October 05, 1997

ANTI-NUCLEAR ACTIVISTS who want this month's scheduled Cassini spacecraft mission to Saturn canceled overstate the danger. That includes Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, whose voiced concern brought five NASA and Department of Energy officials to Baltimore recently. They didn't erase his fears, but Mr. Schmoke conceded he has "a much higher comfort level."

Cassini is controversial because it will be fueled by the heat produced from the radioactive decay of 72 pounds of plutonium, the largest amount ever used on a spacecraft. The seven-year journey will take Cassini too far from the sun to use solar power. The spaceship is supposed to gather speed by making gravity-assisted fly-bys of Venus, Earth and Jupiter.

Critics fear a launch-pad accident -- or a mishap during the fly-by that will later bring Cassini to within 300 miles of Earth -- could spread radioactive plutonium across the planet. Space missions are always unpredictable. However, Cassini's opponents dismiss the precautions that have been made.

The plutonium-238 dioxide aboard will be formed as ceramic pellets encased in iridium and graphite that are resistant to heat and corrosion. Scientists believe any release of plutonium by accidental vaporization would have as much effect on humans as dental X-rays.

That assessment is bolstered by the opponents' own acknowledgment that although there have been accidents in three of the 24 previous U.S. missions involving spacecraft with nuclear material aboard, any release of vaporized plutonium apparently has had little, if any, impact on Earth's environment.

Anti-Cassini activists lose credibility when they exaggerate the dangers that exist in their zeal to attack all things nuclear. This same unwillingness to put genuine risks in proper perspective hampers this nation's efforts to make more effective use of nuclear energy as an alternative to expensive and polluting fossil fuels.

Other space-flight fuels are being developed. The European Space Agency is working on higher-efficiency solar cells that could generate enough electricity for deep-space missions. NASA is experimenting with solar-electric configurations that provide "ion propulsion." But neither innovation is ready to take Cassini to Saturn. Its journey should not be delayed.

# Pub Date: 10/05/97.

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