NASA is again threatening the lives of people on
On January 11, the window opens for a launch from Cape Canaveral of a rocket lofting a space probe with 24 pounds of plutonium fuel
on board. Plutonium is considered the most deadly radioactive substance.
Once it separates from the rocket, the probe, on what
NASA calls its New Horizons mission, would move
through space powered by conventional chemical fuel.
The plutonium is in a Radioisotope Thermoelectric
Generator (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.
Until after the probe leaves the rocket and breaks
from the Earth's gravitational pull, the plutonium
endangers life on Earth.
Because a fatal dose of plutonium is just a millionth
of a gram, anyone breathing just the tiniest particle
of plutonium dispersed in an accident could die.
NASA has divided the sequence into four phases before
what it calls "escape" of the probe from the Earth's
gravity. It is most concerned about the launch phase.
NASA's Final Environmental Impact Statement for the
New Horizons Mission (EIS) says there is "about 6
percent probability" of an accident during launch.
If plutonium is released in a launch accident-and NASA
says there is a 1-in-620 chance of that-it could
spread far and wide. Some could drift up to 62 miles
from the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force
Station, says the EIS. And "a portion" of the
plutonium could go well beyond that, says NASA, and
"two-thirds of the estimated radiological consequences
would occur within the global population."
That's because "fine particles less than a micron in
diameter" of the plutonium "could be transported
beyond 62 miles and become well mixed in the
troposphere, and have been assumed to potentially
affect persons living within a latitude band from
approximately 20-degrees North to 30-degrees North,"
The troposphere is the atmosphere five to nine miles
overhead. The 20- to 30-degree band goes through parts
of the Caribbean, across North Africa and the Mideast
and then India and China and Hawaii and other Pacific
Islands and then Mexico and southern Texas.
But life elsewhere on Earth could be impacted if the plutonium-fueled probe falls back to Earth before its "escape" and flight on to
NASA says the "probability of an accident" releasing
plutonium "for the overall mission is estimated to be approximately 1 in 300."
An "enormous disaster" could result with the spread of
the plutonium, says Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor
emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The issue is how much plutonium is released in
respirable particles, he explains.
"The problem is it takes so little plutonium," says
The NASA EIS acknowledges that in the event of
plutonium release "costs may include: temporary or
longer term relocation of residents; temporary or
longer term loss of employment; destruction or
quarantine of agricultural products.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."
The EIS says the cost to decontaminate land on which
the plutonium falls would range from "about $241
million to $1.3 billion per square mile."
But, it notes, compensation would be subject to the Price-Anderson Act, a U.S. law first enacted in 1957. It sets a cap on how much
people can collect for property damage, illnesses and death resulting from a "nuclear incident." Under the Energy Bill passed this
year, the cap in the United States was increased to $10 billion.
But the cap for damage from a "nuclear incident
occurring outside the United States shall not exceed
$100 million," the law stipulates. This is the limit
in the original Price-Anderson Act. It has never been
And it is in violation of the Outer Space Treaty of
1967, the basic international law on space-which the
U.S. has signed and was central in drafting-which
declares that "states shall be liable for damage
caused by their space objects."
Demanding that the New Horizons mission be cancelled
is the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power
in Space (www.space4peace.org). Bruce Gagnon, its
coordinator, 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
NASA, he charges, is "playing nuclear Russian roulette
with the public."
Indeed, NASA is planning a series of additional
launches of plutonium-fueled space probes and other
shots involving nuclear material. And 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 the building and launching of actual atomic-propelled rockets.
Disaster may or may not strike on the New Horizons
mission but if these nuclear missions are allowed to
proceeded, some will inevitably result in accidents
dispersing radioactive material.
Indeed, accidents have already happened in the U.S.
space nuclear program. Of the 25 U.S. space missions
using plutonium fuel, three have undergone accidents,
admits the NASA EIS on New Horizons. That's a 1-in-8
record. The worst occurred in 1964 and involved, notes
the EIS, the SNAP-9A RTG with 2.1 pounds of plutonium
fuel. It was to provide electricity to a satellite
that 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 this year by NASA's
counterpart, the European Space Agency, with solar power providing all on-board electricity, now heads for a rendezvous with a comet
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 EIS, NASA maintains the risks to
people from the mission are not 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.
Of course, we can't control lightning or floods or
tornadoes. These are involuntary assaults. NASA's
space nuclear gamble using tax dollars (the cost of
New Horizons: $650 million) is being carried out by
An additional wrinkle: the Boeing machinists who were
to install the New Horizons probe on the Atlas rocket
that is to carry it up are on strike-and warning that
the company's bringing in of replacement workers poses
a safety risk. Because of the strike, other NASA
missions at Cape Canaveral have been grounded. But
NASA is continuing with the New Horizons launch. "If
it's not safe to work on all the other projects with replacement workers, it's irresponsible to continue with New Horizons," says
Robert Wood, a spokesperson for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
Gagnon says his organization is "building opposition
to New Horizons and all missions that launch nuclear
power in space. The public needs to know more about
this issue and we need the grassroots to pressure
Congress and NASA and others responsible. We say that
NASA should be developing alternative, non-nuclear
power sources for space travel."
Paul Gunter of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear
Information and Resource Services comments: "The fact
that both the planet Pluto and the manmade isotope
plutonium are named after the god of hell lends
bizarre insight into NASA's fascination with launching
this hideous stuff into the heavens at the risk of
fouling the very nest of all humankind."
New Horizons and the rest of NASA's deadly-dangerous
nuclear space operations must be stopped.
If space is to be explored, let that be done safely.
To destroy a portion of life on Earth to explore space
makes no sense.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State
University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the
author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear
Threat To Our Planet (Common Courage Press) and wrote
and narrates the TV documentary Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (EnviroVideo,