The drone that “bounced a few times on the runway” at Seychelles
International Airport on April 4 “before ending” up in the sea, according to
a statement from the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority, was conventionally
powered. So was the drone which had a similar accident on Seychelles in
December. From the Indian Ocean island nation the US flies drones over
Somalia and over waters off East Africa looking for pirates.
But the use of nuclear power on US drones was “favorably assessed by
scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and the Northrop Grumman Corp.,”
revealed Steven Aftergood of the
Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists.
report (pdf) said that “technology and systems designs evaluated…have
previously never been applied to unmanned air vehicles” and “use of these
technologies” could provide “system performance unparalleled by existing
technologies.” It acknowledged, however, that “current political conditions
will not allow use of the results.” Thus “it is doubtful that they will be
used in the near-term or mid-term future."
Just consider if the two drones which crashed on the Seychelles used
nuclear power and the impacts if the radioactive fuel they contained was
released. Or consider if the drones had crashed elsewhere, in Somalia, for
instance, providing nuclear material to those who might want to make a
“dirty bomb.” Drones, it should be noted, have a record of frequently
The nuclear-powered drone scheme is ostensibly on hold, according to
Sandia report, because of “current political considerations.” But other
schemes to use nuclear power overhead which also threaten nuclear disaster
are on the planning table and some are moving ahead.
- A new U.S. Air Force plan which supports “nuclear powered flight.”
Titled Energy Horizons, issued in January, it states that “nuclear
energy has been demonstrated on several satellite systems” and “this
source provides consistent power…at a much higher energy and power density
than current technologies.” It does admit that “the implementation of such
a technology should be weighed heavily against potential catastrophic
outcomes.” Indeed, the worst accident involving a U.S. space nuclear
system occurred with the fall to Earth in 1964 of a satellite powered by
an RTG, the SNAP-9A. It failed to achieve orbit and fell to Earth,
disintegrating upon hitting the atmosphere causing its Plutonium-238 fuel
to be dispersed as dust widely over the Earth. Dr. John Gofman, professor
of medical physics at the University of California, Berkeley, long linked
the SNAP-9A accident to a global rise in lung cancer. The Air Force
report (pdf) sees nuclear power as an energy source that would assist
it in taking the “ultimate high ground” which would provide it with
“access to every part of the globe including denied areas."
- "A ground-breaking Russian nuclear space travel propulsion system will
be ready by 2017 and will power a ship capable of long-haul interplanetary
missions by 2025,” the Russian state news agency, Ria Novosti,
reported last week. The April 3 article, headlined “Plutonium to
Pluto: Russian nuclear space travel breakthrough,” said, “The
megawatt-class nuclear drive will function for up to three years and
produce 100-150 kilowatts of energy at normal capacity.” It is “under
development at Skolkovo, Russia’s technology innovation hub, where nuclear
cluster head Dennis Kovalevich confirmed the breakthrough.” It said,
“Scientists expect to start putting the new engine through its paces in
operational tests as early as 2014.” Earlier, Ria Novosti
reported that the director of Roscosmos , the Russian space agency,
believes the “development of megawatt-class nuclear power systems for
manned spacecraft was crucial if Russia wanted to maintain a competitive
edge in the space race, including the exploration of the moon and Mars.”
It also said the Russian rocket company, Energia, is “ready to design a
space-based nuclear power station with a service life of 10-to-15 years,
to be initially placed on the moon or Mars.” The worst accident involving
a Soviet or Russian nuclear space system was the fall from orbit in 1978
of the Cosmos 954 satellite powered by a nuclear reactor. It also broke up
in the atmosphere spreading radioactive debris which scattered over 77,000
square miles of the Northwest Territories of Canada.
- The U.S. is moving again to produce Plutonium-238 for space use. In
recent years, the U.S. stopped making Plutonium-238. It is 270 times more
radioactive than the more commonly known Plutonium-239, used as fuel in
atomic bombs, and thus its manufacture has resulted in significant
radioactive pollution. Instead, it obtained Plutonium-238 from Russia.
RTGs powered by Plutonium-238 had been used by the U.S. as a source of
electricity on satellitesas the Energy Horizons noted. But that
was until the SNAP-9A accident which caused a turn to generating
electricity with solar photovoltaic panels. Now all satellites are powered
by solar panels, as is the International Space Station. But RTGs using
Plutonium-238 have remained a source of on board electricity for space
probes such as Cassini which NASA launched to Saturn in 1999. The
Department of Energy plans to produce Plutonium-238 at both Oak Ridge
National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory. “Over the next two
years, Oak Ridge National Laboratory will carry out a $20 million pilot
project to demonstrate the lab’s ability to produce and process
Plutonium-238 for use in the space program,”
reported the Knoxville News Sentinel last month.
- The U.S. is also developing nuclear-powered rockets. NASA Director
Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and U.S. Marine Corps major general, is
a booster of a design of a Houston-based company, Ad Astra, of which
another former astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, is president and chief
executive officer. “He launched Ad Astra after he retired from NASA in
2005, but the company continues a close association with the U.S. space
agency,” the U.S. government’s Voice of America noted in its article on
the project last year.
The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket or VASMIR could he
energized by solar power but, the article relates, “Chang-Diaz says
replacing solar panels with a nuclear reactor would provide the necessary
power to VASMIR for a much faster trip.” It quotes him as saying “we could
do a mission to Mars that would take about 39 days, one way.” And,
although “such a mission is still many years away, Chang-Diaz says his
rocket could be used much sooner for missions to the International Space
Station or to retrieve or position satellites in Earth orbit."
Challenging what is going on is the
Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. Bruce Gagnon,
coordinator of the group, comments, "Who can deny that the nuclear power
industry isn't working overtime to spread its deadly product onto every
possible military application? The recent disclosure that the Pentagon has
been strongly considering sticking nuclear engines on-board drones is
dangerously 'more of the same.’"
"Nuclear-powered devices flying around on drones or on-board rockets that
frequently blow up on launch is pure insanity,” says Gagnon. “The people
need to push back hard."
What is happening has deep roots. A key rationale by Sandia and Northrop
Grumman for nuclear-powered drones was, as the British newspaper, The
Guardian, reported last week, increased flight times and longer range.
“American scientists have drawn up plans for a new generation of
nuclear-powered drones capable of flying over remote regions of the world
for months on end without refueling,” it
reported. The same rationale, noted Gagnon, was behind the U.S.
development in the 1940s and 50s of nuclear-propelled bombers.
The strategy was for these nuclear-powered bombers to stay up in the air
for extensive periods of time. There would thus be no need to scramble crews
and have bombers take off to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union;
they’d already be airborne waiting for the command. The Nuclear Energy for
the Propulsion of Aircraft or NEPA project was begun in 1946 and involved
the conversion of two B-36 bombers for nuclear propulsion. The first
operation of an aircraft engine using nuclear power occurred in 1956. The
U.S. national laboratories had a string of facilities that got their start
in the crash program to build atomic weapons. The Manhattan Project was
integral to the scheme, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, then run by
the since disbanded U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, did much of the research
work. Much of the testing was done at what is now the Idaho National
Laboratory where today two nuclear aircraft engines are on public display
and where a gargantuan hangar built for nuclear aircraft still remains.
General Electric was a major contractor.
The plan for nuclear-powered bombers was finally scuttled because of the
problem of providing heavy lead shielding to protect the crew from radiation
and, as then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Congress in
1961, an atomic airplane would “expel some fraction of radioactive fission
products into the atmosphere, creating an important public relations problem
if not an actual physical hazard."
A subsequent program linking nuclear power and weapons was the Star Wars
program under President Ronald Reagan. It was “predicated,” as Gagnon notes,
“on nuclear power in space.” Reactors and also a “Super RTG” to be built by
General Electric were to provide the energy on orbiting battle platforms for
lasers, hypervelocity guns and particle beam weapons.
In my book,
The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet,”
and TV documentary, Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization
of the Heavens, I noted the 1988 declaration of Lt. General James
Abramson, first head of the Strategic Defense Initiative, that “without
reactors in orbit [there is] going to be a long, long light cord that goes
down to the surface of Earth” bringing up power. He stated: “Failure to
develop nuclear power in space could cripple efforts to deploy anti-missile
sensors and weapons in orbit."
As to nuclear-propelled rockets, the U.S. has a long history of seeking
to build them from the 1950s onward. There was a program called Nuclear
Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application or NERVA followed by Projects Pluto,
Rover and Poodle. And in the 1980s, the Timberwind nuclear-powered rocket
was developed to loft heavy Star Wars equipment into space and also for
trips to Mars. Most recently, the Project Prometheus program to build
nuclear-powered rockets was begun by NASA in 2003. Through the years there
have been major concerns over a nuclear rocket blowing up on launch or
crashing back to Earth.
The Soviet Union, Russia, conducted a parallel space nuclear program
including nuclear-powered satellites, development of a nuclear bomber and
Now, meanwhile, nuclear power above our heads has been shown as
NASA has persisted in using Plutonium-238-powered RTGs on space probes
claiming there was no choice. But last year it launched the Juno space probe
which is now on its way to Jupitergetting all its on-board electricity only
from solar photovoltaic panels. It’s to arrive in 2016 and make 32 orbits
around Jupiter and perform a variety of scientific missions. As NASA stated
last week on its
website for Juno: “As of April 4, Juno was approximately 209 million
miles from Earth…The Juno spacecraft is in excellent health.” This is
despite NASA claiming for decades that only nuclear power could provide
on-board power in deep space.
Likewise, the European Space Agency in 2004 launched a space probe it
Rosetta, also using solar energy rather than nuclear power for on-board
electricity. It is to rendezvous in 2014 with a comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
and send out a lander which will investigate the comet’s surface. At that
point it will be 500 million miles from the Sun, a small ball in the sky at
that distance, yet Rosetta will still be harvesting solar energy.
As to propulsion in space, a highly promising energy source are the
ionized particles in space that can be utilized in the frictionless
environment with what are being called solar sails. In May 2010, the Japan
Exploration Agency launched an experimental spacecraft,
Ikaros, that seven months later reached Venuspropelled only by its
The Planetary Society is readying a similar mission using a spacecraft
named LightSail-1 powered by solar sails and planning for two more ambitious
solar sail flights of LightSail-2 and LightSail-3.
These missions do not present threats to life on Earth as does the use
of nuclear power overhead. And the threats of nuclear power overhead can be
enormous. For example, consider the projection in NASA’s Final
Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission about the impacts
if there were an “inadvertent reentry” of Cassini into Earth’s atmosphere
during one of its two “flybys”whips around the Earth but a few hundred
miles high to increase its velocity so it could get to Saturn. If it fell to
Earth, broke up in the atmosphere and its 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238 were
released, “5 billion…of the world population…could receive 99 percent or
more of the radiation exposure,” projected NASA.
Moreover, the production of nuclear fuel on Earth for use in space or in
the atmosphere for drones constitutes danger, too. Facilities that had been
used earlier by the U.S. to produce Plutonium-238, Los Alamos National
Laboratory and Mound Laboratory, ended up as hotspots for worker
contamination and radioactive pollution.
James Powell, executive director of the organization Keep Yellowstone
Nuclear Free, which has been opposing the restart of Plutonium-238
production at nearby Idaho National Laboratory, comments: “Aside from the
looming danger of nuclear powered crafts above Earth, we should also realize
that the nuclear material is to be produced in our backyards with 1960's era
nuclear reactors and then transported back and forth from [Oak Ridge
National Laboratory in] Tennessee to Idaho. Every single part of this
process deeply concerns us.”