Plutonium in Space (Again!)

Covert Action Quarterly
Number 73 Summer 2002

Karl Grossman

( this article in Japanese - as published in the monthly journal "Gunshuku"
translated by Satomi Oba)

Building the infrastructure for omnicide

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is moving to revive its scheme to build nuclear-propelled rockets - on which $10 billion in 1950s and 60s dollars was spent. 1 The program was cancelled because of the problem, still-present, of disaster happening if such a rocket fell back to Earth. Also, NASA is moving to expand its use of atomic power to generate electricity on space probes and planetary rovers.

NASA calls the program its Nuclear Systems Initiative. Some $125.5 million would be spent on it next year - an appropriation request now moving through committees in Congress and expected to undergo a final vote in Fall 2002, according to Congressional staffers. 2 This is to be the first installment of $1 billion that NASA is seeking over the next five years for its new atomic space program.

The Nuclear Systems Initiative is "a new element" in NASA's "space science program," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told the House of Representatives Committee on Science in February. 3 Three months before, O'Keefe replaced Daniel Goldin as NASA administrator. Goldin, increasingly concerned about opposition to NASA's use of nuclear power on space devices and the potential political and public impacts on NASA, sought to avoid their use during his tenure. 4 As Apollo astronaut John Young complained at a Space Technology and Applications International Forum in 1999, Goldin doesn’t want nuclear power. 5

But OKeefe, appointed NASA chief by President George W. Bush and U.S. secretary of the Navy under Bush's father and, before that, comptroller and chief financial officer of the Department of Defense working for then Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, 6 has made it clear he is bullish on the use of nuclear power in space.

"Nuclear propulsion greatly increases mission flexibility, enabling new science missions, more in-depth investigations, and greater flexibility in reaching and exploring distant objects, he told the House Committee on Science. He described the Nuclear Systems Initiative as a program to develop safe and reliable nuclear power and propulsion systems." 7

The Nuclear Systems Initiative comes as scientists in the European Space Agency - ESA, the European counterpart of NASA - in the space industry and at NASA itself have made breakthroughs in developing safer ways of propelling rockets and energizing space probes and planetary landers. This includes solar electric propulsion and the use of "solar sails" and other solar technologies that stress the generation of electricity with new high-efficiency solar cells.

In fact, next year ESA is to launch a solar-powered space probe called Rosetta named after the Rosetta Stone which, notes ESA, "led to a revolution in our understanding of the past. By comparing the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone, historians were able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics for the first time. Just as the Rosetta Stone provided the key to an ancient civilization, so the European Space Agency's Rosetta Spacecraft will allow scientists to unlock the mystery of the oldest building blocks of our solar system - the comets." 8

Rosetta's on-board electricity will come from solar cells with 25% efficiency - a quarter of the sunlight striking its panels will turn into electricity. "Until now, deep space probes had to use thermonuclear power generators," ESA explains in its informational material on Rosetta, but because such atomic "technology is not available in Europe, ESA attempted to develop a power source based on very high-efficiency solar cells." 9

The "25% mark represents the highest efficiency ever reached worldwide with silicon cells" and Rosetta will be drawing sunlight from far, far off. Its voyage is to include "two excursions" into the asteroid belt and it then will fly beyond Jupiter to rendezvous with a comet called Wirtanen. 10

"Rosetta," says ESA, "will be the first space mission to journey beyond the main asteroid belt and rely solely on solar cells for power generation, rather than traditional radioisotope thermal generators." 11 "After a 5.3 billion km space odyssey, Rosetta will make first contact with Wirtanen about 675 million km from the Sun", explains ESA on its website. "At this distance, sunlight is 20 times weaker than on Earth." 12 Despite the decline in available sunlight at such distances, current solar cell technology will be able to supply the needs of the Rosetta mission.

In contrast, NASA's new stress on nuclear power in space "is not only dangerous but politically unwise," says Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York. "The only thing that can kill the U.S. space program is a nuclear disaster. The American people will not tolerate a Chernobyl in the sky. That would doom the space program." 13

"NASA hasn’t learned its lesson from its history involving space nuclear power", says Kaku, "and a hallmark of science is that you learn from previous mistakes. NASA doggedly pursues its fantasy of nuclear power in space. We have to save NASA from itself." He cites "alternatives" to space nuclear power. "Some of these alternatives may delay the space program a bit. But the planets are not going to go away. What’s the rush? I'd rather explore the universe slower than not at all if there is a nuclear disaster." 14

Dr. Ross McCluney, a former NASA scientist, says the Nuclear Systems Initiative "is a surprise to me because I thought the issue of using nuclear in space had been settled at NASA because of the history of problems and the dangers." 15

McCluney regards the new nuclear program as "an example of tunnel vision, focusing too narrowly on what appears to be a good engineering solution but not on the longer-term human and environmental risks and the law of unintended consequences. You think you’re in control of everything and then things happen beyond your control. If your project is inherently benign, an unexpected error can be tolerated. But when you have at your projects core something inherently dangerous, then the consequences of unexpected failures can be great." 16

"As a former NASA employee and a great NASA supporter, I am fearful of the future of NASA if it gets too involved with nuclear material," says McCluney, principal research scientist at the Florida Solar Energy Center. 17

From Propulsion to Destruction

Although NASA stresses doing interplanetary exploration with nuclear power including propelling rockets on voyages to Mars a military link is seen by Dr. Dave Webb, who had been a scientist in the British space program and is now secretary of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. "The recent increase in the U.S. budget for Star Wars and NASA’s plans to spend $1 billion in the next five years on its nuclear power and propulsion programs is no coincidence," he says. "Star Wars projects like the Space-Based Laser require significant sources of power and it is very useful for the U.S. government to be able to bury some of the costs for the development work in civilian or dual use programs." 18

"Firing nuclear material into space on the top of rockets subject to frequent failures is just asking for trouble," says Webb. "How long will it be before the residents of central Florida are subjected to a shower of nuclear debris from a launch that goes wrong? Historically there is about a 1-in-10 chance of a catastrophic accident during satellite launches. Who will cover the costs including the medical costs if things like that happen to a nuclear payload?" Webb, principal lecturer at the United Kingdoms Leeds Metropolitan University’s School of Engineering, also points to the solar option and stresses the use of solar energy on Rosetta by ESA of which the UK is part. 19

A branch of NASA its Photovoltaics and Space Environment Branch headquartered at the John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland has, like ESA, been working at the cutting-edge of space solar energy development.

The silicon solar cells "developed decades ago" which now power the International Space Station, notes NASA’s website, have 14.5% efficiency, and the branch is "exploring new ways to harness the Suns power - including more efficient solar cells, laser-beaming energy to distant spacecraft and solar power systems for the Moon and Mars." This includes solar systems for exploring and powering bases on Moon and Mars. 20

NASA’s website includes detailed NASA plans such as "Photovoltaic Power for the Moon," 21 "Power Systems for Bases and Rovers on Mars" 22 and "A Solar Power System for an Early Mars Expedition." 23

There is no "edge" or limit to solar power, says a solar scientist at the NASA branch, Dr. Geoffrey A. Landis. "In the long term, solar arrays wont have to rely on the Sun. We're investigating the concept of using lasers to beam photons to solar arrays. If you make a powerful-enough laser and can aim the beam, there really isn’t any edge of sunshine." 24

Solar is also being developed to propel spacecraft. In solar electric propulsion, electricity collected by panels is concentrated and used to accelerate the movement of propellant out of a thrust chamber. NASA’s Deep Space 1 probe, launched in 1998, is the first space probe to be propelled with solar electric propulsion. 25

Then there are "solar sails" making use of the ionized particles emitted by the Sun which constitute a force in space. 26 They can be utilized just like wind by a sailboat on Earth. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California is considering a launch at the end of the decade of a space probe to Pluto using either solar sails or solar electric propulsion. 27

A space device with solar sails built in Russia for the International Planetary Society, based in California and founded by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, was launched last year. Russia's Interfax news service noted that the "objective of the mission is to test the system for opening the paddles of an experimental transport vehicle, which looks like a giant windmill, using for the first time in space exploration solar wind for propulsion." 28

Jack Dixon, for 30 years an aerospace engineer, takes issue with those against nuclear power in space for being critical of it for "politically correct," anti-nuclear reasons. His criticism is cost - what he says is an enormous cost. The solar sail system "may be implemented at about 10% of the cost of nuclear and quickly." It is "simple and relatively low tech." 29

Yet despite the costs, dangers and the advances in solar energy and other benign forms of power for use in space, NASA would emphasize nuclear power. In fact, the situation is not so different from how the Bush administration has been pushing to "revive" nuclear power on Earth despite the availability today of safe, clean, economic, renewable energy technologies. And like terrestrial atomic power, space nuclear power has a problematic past.

Early U.S. space satellites were powered by plutonium. The first nuclear satellite was Transit 4A, a navigational satellite launched on June 29, 1961. It was a time when space and nuclear power were seen by some as coupled.

Space exploration "in large measure depends upon the common destiny of space and the atom," former U.S. Senator Albert Gore - the father of the ex-vice president - declared in a 1962 Senate speech. In Gores home state, importantly, was Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Oak Ridge and the other U.S. nuclear laboratories then and to this day have promoted the development of space atomic power as a means of expanding their activities, to bring in more work. Gore, a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, advocated nuclear-powered rockets and atomic power "for a wide variety of miscellaneous functions in space." 30

"If the United States fails to develop nuclear rocket engines," said Gore," it will be left a second-class space power . . . Nuclear energy is essential for leadership in space." 31

Along with the national nuclear laboratories - set up during the World War II atom bomb-building Manhattan Project and thereafter run by the Atomic Energy Commission and now the Department of Energy - the corporations involved in building space nuclear systems have also been active in promoting their use.

The Transit 4A's plutonium system was manufactured by General Electric. The plutonium system - SNAP-9A for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power - aboard Transit 5BN-3, launched on April 24, 1964, also was built by GE. But this nuclear satellite failed to achieve orbit, falling from the sky and disintegrating as it burned in the atmosphere. 32

The 2.1 pounds of Plutonium-238 (an isotope of plutonium, 280 times radioactively "hotter" than the Plutonium-239 that is used in nuclear weapons) in the SNAP-9A dispersed widely over the Earth. A study titled Emergency Preparedness for Nuclear-Powered Satellites done by a grouping of European health and radiation protection agencies reported that "a worldwide soil sampling program carried out in 1970 showed SNAP-9A debris present at all continents and at all latitudes." 33

Long connecting the SNAP-9A accident and an increase of lung cancer on Earth has been Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, an M.D. and Ph.D. who was involved in isolating plutonium for the Manhattan Project and co-discovered several radioisotopes. 34

The SNAP9-A accident caused NASA to become a pioneer in developing solar photovoltaic energy technology. And in recent decades, all U.S. satellites have been solar-powered.

But NASA continued to use plutonium-powered systems for a series of space probe missions, claiming that solar power could not be gathered on them. The ill-fated shuttle Challenger was to launch a plutonium-fueled space probe in its next planned mission in 1986. The nuclear probe was to generate on-board electricity for the Ulysses space probe mission to study the Sun. A postponed Ulysses shot was launched in 1990.

The most recent nuclear space probe mission was called Cassini. It was launched in 1997 with more plutonium fuel - 72.3 pounds - than on any space device ever. NASA conceded the serious dangers of a Cassini accident in its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission. It stated that if an "inadvertent reentry occurred" and Cassini fell back into the Earths atmosphere, it would break up (it had no heat shield) and "5 billion of the . . . world population . . . could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure." 35 NASA said the "estimated size of the footprint" of radioactive contamination could be as high as 50,000 square kilometers. As for "decontamination methods," NASA listed as planned remedies: "Remove and dispose all vegetation, Remove and dispose topsoil. Relocate animals . . . Ban future agricultural land uses." And for urban environments, "Demolish some or all structures. Relocate affected population permanently." 36 Dr. Gofman estimated the death toll from cancer in the event of the plutonium on Cassini being released at 950,000. 37

The U.S. nuclear-propelled rocket program began at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1950s with building of the Kiwi reactor for what became known as the NERVA - for Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application - program. Projects Pluto, Rover and Poodle to build nuclear-powered rockets followed.

Westinghouse was a major contractor in the original U.S. nuclear rocket efforts.

A former Westinghouse president, John W. Simpson, related how to get the contracts "we pulled out all the stops - not only technical effort but also marketing and political savvy." 38

Ground tests of nuclear rocket components were conducted. No nuclear-propelled rocket ever flew. By the early 1970s, the catastrophe that could result if a nuclear-powered rocket crashed to Earth had been recognized and the program ended.

But in the 1980s and the first incarnation of a U.S. Star Wars program under President Ronald Reagan, consideration of a nuclear-propelled rocket resumed - for use to loft heavy Star Wars equipment into space. The project was named "Timberwind" and plans were made for both ground and flight tests. To avoid heavily populated parts of the Earth, the plan was to fly a prototype atomic rocket around Antarctica but the rocket was also to pass over New Zealand and an analysis by Sandia National Laboratories projected the probability of the nuclear rocket crashing on New Zealand at 1-in-2,325. 39

Babcock and Wilcox, builder of the ill-fated Three Mile Island nuclear plant, was selected by the government to build the atomic engine for the Timberwind rocket. The reactor design was based on work done at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York.

The late Dr. Henry Kendall, chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and a Nobel Laureate, said of the Timberwind rocket that for such a vehicle "the needle just goes up to the end of the [danger] scale and stays there." Such a rocket would "release a stream of radiation" as it flew, he said, and if it underwent an accident and broke up, "you've got radioactive material spraying all over the place . . . the risks are extremely great." 40

With President Bill Clinton taking office, the Timberwind endeavor was renamed the Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Program and the aim changed to using the atomic rocket for voyages to Mars. The project was cancelled in 1993.

The new nuclear-propelled rocket push is seen by Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, as "the foot in the door, the Trojan horse, for the militarization of space" in the Star Wars plans of the George W. Bush administration. "Control and domination of the space program by the Pentagon proceeds apace," he says. Also, he warns that beyond accidents impacting people, "the production process at Department of Energy laboratories making space nukes will lead to significant numbers of workers and communities being contaminated." He says: "Serious questions need to be asked: Where will they test the nuclear rocket? How much will it cost? What would be the impacts of a launch accident? These nuclearization of space plans are getting dangerous and out of control." 41

Gagnon also notes that the U.S. government agency in charge of the production of the radioisotope power systems used on space probes is the Department of Energy's Office of Space & Defense Power Systems and the devices have long had a military dual use. 42

"The U.S.," says Green activist Lorna Salzman, a founder of the New York Green Party, "is now allocating billions of taxpayer's dollars, mobilizing all its police, military, investigative and spy powers to head off potential bio- and nuclear-terrorism - not to mention suicide bombers, airplane hijackers and makers of chemical weapons - to protect American citizens while preparing to invest a fortune on space nukes that could inundate those same citizens with radiation . . . Is NASA trying to tell us that terrorism inflicted by religious fanatics is bad but self-inflicted nuclear terrorism is OK? Or is NASA itself so infected by fatal hubris that it refuses to entertain the possibility of rocket failure. There are viable alternatives that do not put lives at risk." 43

"Why on Earth," asks Alice Slater, president of the New York-based Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, "would any sane person propose to take nuclear poisons to a whole new level?" 44

"Nuclear power," says Sally Light, executive director of the anti-nuclear Nevada Desert Experience, "whether in space or on Earth is a risky business. Why is the U.S. blindly plunging ahead with such a potentially disastrous and outmoded concept? We should use solar-powered technologies as they are clean, safe and feasible. Committing $1 billion for NASAs Nuclear Systems Initiative is unconscionable. Did the people of Earth have a voice in this? One of the basic principles of democracy is that those affected have a determinative role in the decision-making process. We in the U.S. and people worldwide are faced with a dangerous, high-risk situation being forced on us and on our descendents." 45


The Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space can be reached at (352) 3379274. P.O. Box 98003, Gainsesville, Florida 32607.

Karl Grossman's videos Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens, and Nukes in Space II , are available from EnviroVideo: (800) ECO-TV46 or .

This article was reprinted from CovertAction Quarterly Number 73, Summer 2002.

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1. Peter Pae, NASA Seeks $1 Billion for Nuclear Propulsion Plan, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2002, pp.112.

2. Interviews with Author, April 2002.

3. Statement of Sean OKeefe, Administrator National Aeronautics and Space Administration Before the Committee on Science, House of Representatives.'keefe.htm

4. Interviews of NASA sources by Author.

5. Lawrence Spohn, Astronauts at Albuquerque Forum Push for Return of Nuclear Power In Space, Albuquerque Tribune, February 2, 1999.

6. NASA Administrator Honorable Sean OKeefe, NASA biography of OKeefe.

7. Ibid.

8. ESA Unveils Its New Comet Chaser, ESA Information Note No. 91999.

9. New Solar Cells With Record Efficiency, ESA Press Information Note No. 0794, 29 April 1994.

10. Ibid.

11. Europes Comet Chaser Rosetta, European Space Agency, ESA Publications Division, ESTEC, PO Box 299, 2200 AG Noordwijk, The Netherlands. 2001.

12. ESA Unveils Its New Comet Chaser, op. cit.

13. Interview with Author, March 2002.

14. Ibid.

15. Interview with Author, March 2002.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Interview with Author, March 2002.

19. Ibid.

20. Geoffrey A. Landis, The Edge of Sunshine, January 8, 2002.

21. Photovoltaic Power for the Moon.

22. Power Systems for Bases & Rovers on Mars.

23. A Solar Power System for an Early Mars Expedition.

24. Geoffrey A. Landis, The Edge of Sunshine, op. cit.

25. Deep Space 1.

26. Among recent articles on solar sails are: Greg Clark, SPACE.COM Exclusive: Breakthrough In Solar Sail Technology, 02 March 2000.

And Robin Lloyd, Solar Windsurfing: The Fastest-Ever Propulsion, 21 June 2001.

27. NASAs Pluto Mission Delayed, JPL Universe Newspaper, October 3, 2000.

28. Interfax, Russian Submarine Launches Solar Wind-Propelled Satellite, 20 July 2001.

29. Correspondence with Author, March 2002.

30. Remarks of Senator Albert Gore on the Floor of the U.S. Senate, March 20, 1962, contained in Proceedings of the Subcommitee on Research, Development, and radiation of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Congress of the United States, Eighty-Seventh Congress, Second Session on Space Nuclear Power Applications, September 13, 14 and 19, 1962. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962, p. 352.

31. Ibid.

32. For a full discussion on the SNAP-9A accident, see Karl Grossman, "The Wrong Stuff: The Space Programs Nuclear Threat To Our Planet," (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1997), pp. 1113.

33. "Emergency Preparedness for Nuclear-Powered Satellites," Organization for economic Cooperation and Development and Swedish National Institute for Radiation Protection, Paris, 1990, p. 17.

34. Interviews with Author.

35. Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Solar System Exploration Division, Office of Space Science, June 1995, p. 476

36. Ibid, p. 472.

37. Op. cit.

38. John W. Simpson, "Nuclear Power from Underseas to Outer Space" (LaGrange Park, Illlinois: American Nuclear Society, 1995), pp. 133134.

39. "Probability of Impacting NZ," Sandia National Laboratories, Undated.

40. Interview with Author, April 1992.

41. Interview with Author, March 2002.

42. Interview with Author, March 2002. For information on the Department of Energys Office of Space & Defense Power Systems and its involvement with radioisotope power systems, see http://nuclear/gov/space/history-history.html

43. Interview with Author, March 2002.

44. Interview with Author, March 2002.

45. Interview with Author, March 2002.

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