4 December 2005
Making too little of plutonium load
By Karl Grossman

Special to The News-Journal

NASA is again rolling dice with the lives of the people of Florida.

The space agency intends to launch an Atlas rocket carrying a space probe with 24 pounds of plutonium fuel in January. Once it separates from the rocket, the probe, on what NASA calls its New Horizons mission, would move on through space powered by conventional chemical fuel. The plutonium is contained in a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG, that is to provide on-board electricity for the probe's instruments -- a mere 180 watts when it gets to its destination of Pluto.

But if the Atlas rocket with the space probe and RTG it is to loft undergoes a catastrophic accident at launch, some of that plutonium could be dispersed -- affecting life in Florida.

NASA calculates the chances of a successful mission at 94 percent. As to the release of plutonium -- long-considered the most deadly radioactive substance known -- NASA puts the odds at 1-in-300. These figures are contained -- and repeated -- in NASA's "Final Environmental Impact Statement for the New Horizons Mission." If people knew they had a 1-in-300 chance of winning the Florida lottery, there would be lines miles long at every store selling lottery tickets from Daytona Beach to Key West.

Of course, the payoff with the 1-in-300 New Horizons odds wouldn't be cold cash but hot plutonium.

The plutonium could spread far and wide -- up to 62 miles from the launch site at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, according to the NASA impact statement.

"Should a release of radioactive material occur in the launch area," states the impact statement, "the state of Florida, Brevard County and local governments would determine an appropriate course of action for any off-site plans -- such as sheltering in place, evacuation, exclusion of people from contaminated land areas, or no action required."

You think Hurricane Wilma was a problem.

And if this storm is radioactive, it wouldn't be a matter of people with chain saws, roofers and carpenters cleaning up the mess. The impact statement says the cost to decontaminate land on which the plutonium falls would range from "about $241 million to $1.3 billion per square mile."

In "addition," says NASA, "costs may include: 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; restrictions or bans on commercial fishing; and public health effects and medical care."

As to the death toll, NASA projects that the dispersed plutonium could result in 100 people dying from cancer.

This is regarded as "totally ridiculous" by Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Plutonium is considered the most lethal radioactive substance because a millionth of a gram of plutonium dust lodged in the lung can be a fatal dose. "The problem is that it takes just a tiny amount of plutonium to cause cancer," says Dr. Sternglass.

"I suppose if immediately everybody in the direction to which the wind is blowing was evacuated, that could hold the numbers down but that's impossible. It's totally unrealistic," he says. "If there's an explosion, that stuff will come down within minutes. How do you prevent people from inhaling it -- even while evacuating."

Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, says "one thing we know is that space technology can and does fail and when you mix deadly plutonium into the equation, you are asking for catastrophe."

The last time NASA launched a space probe with plutonium onboard from Florida was 1997 on a mission called Cassini.

At that time, Gagnon was asked to speak to the Cape Canaveral City Council whose members told him, he recounts, that officials of NASA and the Air Force had assured them "that Cassini was the last plutonium mission."

Now moving ahead with New Horizons, NASA is "playing nuclear Russian roulette with the public," charges Gagnon. (The Global Network's Web site: www.space4peace.org)

Indeed, NASA is planning a series of additional launches of plutonium-fueled space probes and other shots involving nuclear material. Under its $3 billion Project Prometheus program, the agency is working on nuclear reactors to be carried up by rockets for placement on the moon and building and launching actual atomic-propelled rockets.

Even if disaster doesn't strike on the New Horizons mission, sooner or later nuclear space tragedy will occur.

Indeed, accidents have already happened. Of the 25 U.S. space missions using plutonium fuel, three have undergone accidents, admits the NASA impact statement on New Horizons. That's a 1-in-8 record. The worst occurred in 1964 and involved, notes the impact statement, the SNAP-9A RTG with 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel. A satellite it was to provide electricity to failed to achieve orbit and dropped to Earth. The RTG disintegrated in the fall, spreading plutonium widely. Release of that plutonium caused an increase in global lung cancer rates, says Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley.

After the SNAP-9A accident, NASA pioneered the development of solar energy in space. Now all satellites -- and the International Space Station -- are solar powered.

But NASA keeps insisting on plutonium power for space probes -- even as the Rosetta space probe, launched by NASA's counterpart, the European Space Agency, with solar power providing all on-board electricity, heads today for a rendezvous with a comet near Jupiter.

And, along with the U.S. military, which for decades has been planning for the deployment of nuclear-energized weapons in space, NASA seeks wider uses of atomic power above our heads.

In its New Horizons impact statement, NASA maintains the risks to people from the mission aren't so bad in view of a chart it presents titled "Calculated Individual Risk and Probability of Fatality by Various Causes in the United States." The chart lists the probability of getting killed by lightning or in a flood or by a tornado as higher than someone dying of cancer because of plutonium dispersed in New Horizons.

But we can't control lightning or floods or tornadoes. These are involuntary assaults.

NASA's game of space-borne Russian roulette is being carried out by choice -- with the people of Florida on the front lines in this reckless, mindless NASA adventure using our tax dollars. (The taxpayer cost of New Horizons: $650 million, not counting data analysis.)

A hurricane can't be stopped, but we can -- and should -- stop NASA's deadly dangerous nuclear space operations.

Editor's note: Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is author of "The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear Threat To Our Planet."

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