Artist concep of Juno taking
Jupiter orbit. A much more comforting image than the a plutonium
disaster a mile above the Earth's surface. (Photo: NASA)
What is NASA’s future now that Atlantis has landed and the shuttle program
is over? If NASA persists in using nuclear power in space, the agency’s
future is threatened.
Between November 25 and December 15 NASA plans to launch for use on Mars a
rover fueled with 10.6 pounds of plutonium, more plutonium than ever used
on a rover.
The mission has a huge cost: $2.5 billion.
But if there is an accident before the rover is well on its way to Mars,
and plutonium is released on Earth, its cost stands to be yet more
NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for what it calls its Mars
Science Laboratory Mission says that if plutonium is released on Earth,
the cost could be as high as $1.5 billion to decontaminate each square
mile of “mixed-use urban areas” impacted.
What‘s the probability of an accident releasing plutonium? The NASA
document says “the probability of an accident with a release of plutonium”
is 1-in-220 “overall.”
If you knew your chance of not surviving an airplane flight -- or just a
drive in a car -- was 1 in 220, would you take that trip?
And is this enormous risk necessary?
In two weeks, there’ll be a NASA mission demonstrating a clear alternative
to atomic energy in space: solar power.
On August 5, NASA plans to launch a solar-powered space probe it’s named
Juno to Jupiter. There’s no atomic energy involved, although NASA for
decades has insisted that nuclear power is necessary for space devices
beyond the orbit of Mars. With Juno, NASA will be showing it had that
“Juno will provide answers to critical science questions about Jupiter, as
well as key information that will dramatically enhance present theories
about the early formation of our own solar system,” says NASA on its
website. “In 2016, the spinning, solar-powered Juno spacecraft will reach
Jupiter.” It will be equipped with “instruments that can sense the hidden
world beneath Jupiter’s colorful clouds” and make 33 passes of Jupiter.
As notes Aviation Week and Space Technology: “The unique spacecraft will
set a record by running on solar power rather than nuclear radioisotope
thermoelectric generators previously used to operate spacecraft that far
from the Sun.”
The Mars rover to be launched, named Curiosity by NASA, will be equipped
with these radioisotope thermoelectric generators using plutonium, the
deadliest radioactive substance.
Juno, a large craft - 66-feet wide - will be powered by solar panels
built by a Boeing subsidiary, Spectrolab. The panels can convert 28
percent of the sunlight that them to electricity. They’ll also produce
heat to keep Juno’s instruments warm. This mission’s cost is $1.1 billion.
In fact, Juno is not a wholly unique spacecraft. In 2004, the European
Space Agency launched a space probe called Rosetta that is also
solar-powered. Its mission is to orbit and land on a comet - beyond the
orbit of Jupiter.
Moreover, there have been major developments in “solar sails” to propel
spacecraft. Last year, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched its
Ikaros spacecraft with solar sails taking it to Venus. In January, NASA
itself launched its NanoSail-D spacecraft. The Planetary Society has been
developing several spacecraft that will take advantage of photons emitted
by the Sun to travel through the vacuum of space.
At no point will Juno (or the other solar spacecrafts) be a threat to life
on Earth. This includes Juno posing no danger when in 2013 it makes a
flyby of Earth. Such flybys making use of Earth’s gravity to increase a
spacecraft’s velocity have constituted dangerous maneuvers when in recent
years they’ve involved plutonium-powered space probes such as NASA’s
Galileo and Cassini probes.
Curiosity is a return to nuclear danger.
NASA’s Final Environmental Impact statement admits that a large swath of
Earth could be impacted by plutonium in an accident involving it. The
document’s section on “Impacts of Radiological Releases” says “the
affected environment” could include “the regional area near the Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station and the global area.”
“Launch area accidents would initially release material into the regional
area, defined…to be within …62 miles of the launch pad,” says the
document. This is an area from Cape Canaveral west to Orlando.
But “since some of the accidents result in the release of very fine
particles less than a micron in diameter, a portion of such releases could
be transported beyond…62 miles,” it goes on. These particles could become
“well-mixed in the troposphere” -- the atmosphere five to nine miles high
-- “and have been assumed to potentially affect persons living within a
latitude band from approximately 23-degrees north to 30-degrees north.”
That’s a swath through the Caribbean, across North Africa and the Mideast,
then India and China Hawaii and other Pacific islands, and Mexico and
Then, as the rocket carrying Curiosity up gains altitude, the impacts of
an accident in which plutonium is released would be even broader. The
plutonium could affect people “anywhere between 28-degrees north and
28-degrees south latitude,” says the NASA document. That’s a band around
the mid-section of the Earth including much of South America, Africa and
Dr. Helen Caldicott, president emeritus of Physicians for Social
Responsibility, has long emphasized that a pound of plutonium if uniformly
distributed could hypothetically give a fatal dose of lung cancer to every
person on Earth. A pound, even 10.6 pounds, could never be that uniformly
distributed, of course. But an accident in which plutonium is released by
a space device as tiny particles falling to Earth maximizes its lethality.
A millionth of a gram of plutonium can be a fatal dose. The pathway of
greatest concern is the breathing in plutonium particle.
As the NASA Environmental Impact Statement puts it: “Particles smaller
than about 5 microns would be transported to and remain in the trachea,
bronchi, or deep lung regions.” The plutonium particles “would
continuously irradiate lung tissue.”
“A small fraction would be transported over time directly to the blood or
to lymph nodes and then to the blood,” it continues. Once plutonium “has
entered the blood via ingestion or inhalation, it would circulate and be
deposited primarily in the liver and skeletal system.” Also, says the
document, some of the plutonium would migrate to the testes or ovaries.
The cost of decontamination of areas affected by the plutonium could be,
according to the NASA statement, $267 million for each square mile of
farmland, $478 million for each square mile of forests and $1.5 billion
for each square mile of “mixed-use urban areas.”
The NASA document lists “secondary social costs associated with the
decontamination and mitigation activities” as: “Temporary or longer term
relocation of residents; temporary or longer term loss of employment;
destruction or quarantine of agricultural products including citrus crops;
land use restrictions which could affect real estate values, tourism and
recreational activities; restriction or bands on commercial fishing; and
public health effects and medical care.”
As to why the use of a plutonium-powered rover on Mars -- considering
that NASA has successfully used solar-powered rovers on Mars -- the NASA
Environmental Impact Statement says that a “solar-powered rover…would not
be capable of operating over the full range of scientifically desirable
landing site latitudes” on this mission.
There’s more to it. For many decades there has been a marriage of nuclear
power and space at NASA. The use of nuclear power on space missions has
been heavily promoted by the U.S. Department of Energy and its predecessor
agency, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and the many DOE (previously
AEC) national laboratories including Los Alamos and Oak Ridge. This
provides work for these government entities. Also, the manufacturers of
nuclear-powered space devicesGeneral Electric was a pioneers in thishave
pushed their products. Further, NAS has sought to coordinate its
activities with the U.S. military. The military for decades has planned
for the deployment of nuclear-powered weapons in space.
Personifying the NASA-military connection now is NASA Administrator
Charles Bolden, a former NASA astronaut and Marine Corps major general.
Appointed by President Barack Obama, he is a booster of radioisotope
thermoelectric generators as well as rockets using nuclear power for
propulsion. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars through the years on
such rockets but none have ever taken off and the programs have all ended
up cancelled largely out of concern about a nuclear-powered rocket blowing
up on launch or falling back to Earth.
Accidents have happened in the U.S. space nuclear program. Of the 26 space
missions that have used plutonium which are listed in the NASA
Environmental Impact Statement for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission,
three underwent accident causing, admits the document.
The worst occurred in 1964 and involved, it notes, the SNAP-9A plutonium
system aboard a satellite that failed to achieve orbit and dropped to
Earth, disintegrating as it fell. The 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel
dispersed widely over the Earth and Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical
physics at the University of California at Berkeley, long linked this
accident to an increase in global lung cancer. With the SNAP-9A accident,
NASA switched to solar energy on satellites. Now all satellitesand the
International Space Stationare solar-powered.
There was a near-miss involving a nuclear disaster and a space shuttle.
The ill-fated Challenger’s next mission in 1986 was to loft a
plutonium-powered space probe.
The NASA Environmental Impact Statement includes comments from people and
organizations some highly critical of a plutonium-powered Mars Science
Leah Karpen of Asheville, North Carolina says: “Every expansion of
plutonium research, development and transportation of this deadly material
increases the risk of nuclear accident or theft. In addition, plutonium
production is expensive and diverts resources from the more important
social needs of our society today, and in the future.” She urges NASA “to
reconsider the use of nuclear” and go with solar instead.
Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Idaho-based Snake River Alliance,
calls on NASA and the Department of Energy to “take this opportunity to
move space exploration in a sustainable direction with regard to power.
Using solar rather than nuclear to power the Mars Science Laboratory
Mission would keep the U.S. safe, advance energy technologies that are
cleaner and more secure, be more fiscally responsible, and set a
responsible example to other countries as they make decisions about their
Ace Hoffman of Carlsbad, California speaks of “today’s nuclear NASA” and a
“closed society of dangerous, closed-minded ‘scientists’ who are
hoodwinking the American public and who are guilty of premeditated random
murder.” He adds: “The media has a duty to learn the truth rather than
parrot NASA’s blanketly-false assertions.”
NASA, in response to the criticisms, repeatedly states in the document:
“NASA and the DOE take very seriously the possibility that an action they
take could potentially result in harm to humans or the environment.
Therefore, both agencies maintain vigorous processes to reduce the
potential for such events.”
Involved in challenging the mission is the Global Network Against Weapons
& Nuclear Power in Space (www.space4peace.org).
Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Maine-based organization, says that “NASA
sadly appears committed to maintaining their dangerous alliance with the
nuclear industry. Both entities view space as a new market for the deadly
plutonium fuel.” Says Gagnon: “The taxpayers are being asked once again to
pay for nuclear missions that could endanger the life of all the people on
the planet…Have we not learned anything from Chernobyl and Fukushima? We
don’t need to be launching nukes into space. It’s not a gamble we can
afford to take.”
With the return of Atlantis and end of the shuttle program, there are
concerns about this being the “end” of the U.S. space program.
An accident if NASA continues to insist on mixing atomic energy and space
- a nuclear disaster above our heads - that, indeed, could end the space
Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College
of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s
Nuclear Threat to Our Planet (Common Courage Press) and wrote and presented
the TV program Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the