26 February 2004
No to nukes in orbit. Space travel is too risky to expand the use of nuclear power into the heavens
By Bruce Gagnon

 

Since 1994 I have organized protests at the annual University of New Mexico symposium on space nuclear power and propulsion.

Each year I travel to the event to voice opposition to moving nuclear power and weapons into the heavens.

Last year the conference was held just after space shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry and spread its debris over Texas and Louisiana. While in Albuquerque I did numerous interviews with media all over the world. The Columbia disaster was visible evidence that space technology can and does fail.

It is our contention that the nuclear industry and weapons corporations view space as a new market. The Bush administration recently announced "Project Prometheus," a multibillion-dollar research and development program to dramatically expand the use of nuclear power in space. In addition to the two Mars rovers (powered by plutonium) doing soil identification on the red planet, NASA and the aerospace industry plan a nuclear rocket to Mars and ultimately nuclear-powered mining colonies on the moon, Mars and other planetary bodies.

On each of my annual trips to Albuquerque I also tour, giving lectures across the state. Consequently, growing numbers of people learn about the plans for nuclear technology and nuclear weapons of space. I talk about past space nuclear accidents. The last was in 1996 when a Russian Mars mission failed to achieve proper orbit and fell back to Earth, spreading plutonium over the mountains of Chile and Bolivia. In 1964, a U.S. military satellite called SNAP 9-A carrying two pounds of plutonium fell back to Earth and spread its toxic cargo globally as dust. Dr. John Goffman, a founder of uranium at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, studied that accident and believes it is a major contributor to the increase in cancers around the world.

As NASA and the Pentagon increase their use of nuclear power in space, they cannot guarantee there will be no accidents. Continued space nuclear accidents will seal the fate of our children to a toxic-laden planet. I am highly motivated by the fact that I have a 22-year old son who is a college student in Texas. I am concerned for his future and for all the future generations.

When George W. Bush appointed former Secretary of the Navy Sean O'Keefe as the new head of NASA, O'Keefe told the nation that every NASA mission from now on would be "dual use," meaning each mission would serve both military and civilian purposes.

Thus, as we look at the nuclear rocket that NASA and the Energy Department are developing for Mars travel, I must ask: What is the military application of this nuclear reactor in space? The answer is simple: The Pentagon has said that it must have nuclear reactors in space in order to provide power for weapons like the space-based laser (SBL). UNM's Nuclear Engineering Department has long been under contract with the Pentagon to assist in the development of this technology. Called the "Death Star" by the military, the SBL's job would be to knock out other countries' satellites, giving the United States effective "control and domination" of space as called for in the Space Command planning document, "Vision for 2020."

I will continue to return to Albuquerque each February to protest outside UNM's space nukes symposium. Even though the attendees are flush with funds these days, I think it is crucial to remind them that the public is watching what they are doing and is not pleased. Polls reported by mainstream media right after Bush's recent moon-Mars announcement revealed that 62 percent of the American people did not support massive expenditure of funds for these space missions.

As people learn that these efforts will put their children's future in jeopardy because of the heavy use of nuclear power, those poll numbers will only grow more in our favor. People are saying they'd much rather have their tax dollars go for education, health care, jobs and environmental clean-up back here on Mother Earth.

While we do not oppose space exploration, we do oppose the military takeover of the space program and the introduction of nuclear power onto rockets that blow up now and then. I am committed to ensuring that the people of New Mexico and beyond have a voice in the needed debate about where our space program is heading.

Gagnon is coordinator for the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.

 


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