Nuclear Power In Space And The Impact On Earth's Ecosystem

By Bruce Gagnon

27 January 2003

In this famous scene at the start of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, an early humanoid discovers his brute power while playing with bones. In the aftermath of the ensuring carnage that follows the attempted invasion by another humanoid tribe, Kubrick cuts away in an upward pan to the sky following a bone as it rises high in the sky - until millions of years later it morphes into an orbiting nuclear cannon - creating just one of the many subtle subtexts of this brillant sci-fi... and where Kubrick asks us to ponder where will it all end.

After a 30-year shutdown of plans for the nuclear rocket, the Bush administration has resuscitated the technology by giving NASA nearly $1 billion in the next five years to expand its space nuclear and propulsion research and development program. "We are still doing exploration of our solar system in covered wagons," says Ed Weiler, NASA's Space Science Chief.

"The Nuclear Systems Initiative will open up the railroad."

Included in NASA plans are the nuclear rocket to Mars; a new generation of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) for interplanetary missions; nuclear-powered robotic Mars rovers to be launched in 2003 and 2009; and the nuclear powered mission called Pluto-Kuiper Belt scheduled for January,

2006. Ultimately NASA envisions mining colonies on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids that would be powered by nuclear reactors. All of the above missions would be launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on rockets with a historic 10% failure rate. By dramatically increasing the numbers of nuclear launches NASA also dramatically increases the chances of accident.

During the 1950s and 1960s NASA spent over $10 billion to build the nuclear rocket program which was cancelled in the end because of the fear that a launch accident would contaminate major portions of Florida and beyond.

NASA's expanded focus 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."

"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."

Since the 1960s there have been eight space nuclear power accidents by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, several of which released deadly plutonium into the Earth's atmosphere. In April, 1964 a U.S. military satellite with 2.1 pounds of plutonium-238 on-board fell back to Earth and burned up as it hit the atmosphere spreading the toxic plutonium globally as dust to be ingested by the people of the planet. In 1997 NASA launched the Cassini space probe carrying 72 pounds of plutonium that fortunately did not experience failure. If it had, hundreds of thousands of people around the world could have been contaminated.

Last year the Department of Energy (DoE) and NASA announced that due to plans for more nuclear power in space, present facilities must be expanded to handle the expected growth. The DoE will spend over $35 million to renovate the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to help with space plutonium production. Oak Ridge workers would purify the plutonium, which then would be shipped to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico where it would be formed into pellets used in space power systems.

Beyond accidents impacting the planet, the space nuclear production process at the DoE labs will lead to significant numbers of workers and communities being contaminated. Historically DoE has a bad track record when it comes to protecting workers and local water systems from radioactive contaminants.

During the Cassini RTG fabrication process at Los Alamos 244 cases of worker contamination were reported to the DoE.

Serious questions need to be asked: How will workers be protected? Where will they test the nuclear rocket? How much will it cost? What would be the impacts of a launch accidents?

Critics of NASA have long stated that in addition to potential health concerns from radiation exposure, the NASA space nukes initiative represents the Bush administration's covert move to develop power systems for space-based weapons such as lasers on satellites. The military has often stated that their planned lasers in space will require enormous power projection capability and that nuclear reactors in orbit are the only practical way of providing such power.

The Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space maintains that just like missile defense is a Trojan horse for the Pentagon's real agenda for control and domination of space, NASA's nuclear rocket is a Trojan horse for the militarization of space.

NASA's new chief, former Navy Secretary Sean O'Keefe said soon after Bush appointed him to head the space agency that, "I don't think we have a choice, I think it's imperative that we have a more direct association between the Defense Department and NASA. Technology has taken us to a point where you really can't differentiate between that which is purely military in application and those capabilities which are civil and commercial in nature."

In the end hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars will be wasted on plans for the nuclearization and weaponization of space. In order to fund these missions Bush and Congress will have to cut programs like social security, education, health care, child care, public transit and environmental protection. In the name of progress and security the lives of future generations will become more insecure.

For the third year in a row the Global Network (GN) will organize two days of protests on February 3-4, 2003 in Albuquerque, N.M. at the 20th Annual Symposium on Space Nuclear Power & Propulsion. This event draws the top players from NASA, DoE, DoD, nuclear academia and nuclear aerospace each year to plan the push of nuclear power into space. Hundreds of middle and high school students are brought to the symposium for indoctrination and the GN has been able to speak to many of these young people at our protests.

NASA, DoE, and the Pentagon are not asking the tax paying public if we want to suffer the risk and costs of nuclear power in space. Their corporate and military interests make it necessary to push ahead without real citizen input . Scientists and technologists are out of control. Their plans now literally threaten the life of the entire planetary ecosystem. The time has come for vigorous global public debate around the space nuclear power issue.

We intend to make it happen.

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