17 January 2006
NASA ready for the worst
Radioactivity response will be prompt if Atlas 5 explodes

By Todd Halvorson
Florida Today


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  Full speed ahead. New Horizons, aboard the Atlas 5, will be the fastest spacecraft ever launched, reaching lunar orbit distance in just nine hours and passing Jupiter 13 months later. NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA will quickly gauge the magnitude of any radiological release and notify the public what to do next if an Atlas 5 rocket and a plutonium-powered spacecraft explode during launch today, officials said Monday.

Equipped with an electrical generator fueled by 24 pounds of plutonium, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station between 1:24 p.m. and 3:23 p.m. on the world's first mission to explore Pluto.

Government studies show there is a one in 350 chance of a launch accident that would trigger a release of radioactive plutonium. Under most circumstances, the material will not pose a threat beyond the Air Force station's property.

Sixteen field teams armed with high-tech monitoring equipment will be spread out in Brevard County to determine the significance of any release.

People in surrounding communities would be asked to go indoors, close windows and turn off air conditioning if prelaunch forecasts showed winds might push the plume from a rocket explosion toward their cities or towns.

"We assume there is a release until we can prove there is not," said Randall Scott, a radiation protection officer at Kennedy Space Center. "You go indoors. You turn off your air conditioning, and you stay tuned."

About 120 people are on the radiation teams. They'll be outfitted with equipment designed to measure how much radiation people would be exposed to in various areas.

For the first time, experts will be equipped with devices that can immediately transmit data back to specialists at a KSC control center. That way, emergency management officials can quickly determine the magnitude of a release and what people should do.

"The response would be rapid," Scott said.

People told to shelter indoors should listen to TV and radio broadcasts or log on to floridatoday.com or www.embrevard.com for updates. Space Coast Government TV (channel 1 and 99 on Brighthouse Networks cable) will have updates from the Brevard Emergency Operations Center in Rockledge. Dial 2-1-1 for information. For emergencies, dial 9-1-1.

Contact Halvorson at 639-0576 or thalvorson@flatoday.net

See also: other articles on New Horizons

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