Nukes In Space in Wake of Columbia Tragedy

By Karl Grossman

The Columbia shuttle disaster came just as NASA was pushing to greatly widen its program to use nuclear power in space. This includes the development of a nuclear-propelled rocket—a project which NASA spent billions of dollars on in the 1950s and 60s until it was cancelled because of concern of such a nuclear-powered spacecraft crashing to earth.

Just think if it was a nuclear-energized spacecraft that came falling down in pieces over Texas and Louisiana or elsewhere on Earth. The new space nuclear power initiative, Project Prometheus, is a broadening of the NASA Nuclear Systems Initiative announced last year as a five-year $1 billion project. Two days after the Columbia tragedy, NASA increased its budget for Project Prometheus to $3 billion over five years.

In addition to a nuclear-powered spacecraft, NASA is planning additional plutonium-energized space probes and to put atomic power to other space uses including the launching of planetary rovers with nuclear systems.

This May and June NASA plans to launch two rockets from Florida carrying rovers to be landed on Mars equipped with heaters powered by plutonium. The Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power In Space ( has been conducting demonstrations to protest these launches.

NASA’s “Environmental Impact Statement for the Mars Exploration Rover-2003 Project” says that “the overall chance of an accident occurring” for each launch “is about 1 in 30” and "the overall chance of any accident that releases radioactive materials to the environment is about 1 in 230." People "offsite in the downwind direction...could inhale small quantities of radionuclides," says NASA’s statement. An area as far as 62 miles from the launch site could be impacted, says NASA.

“These and other NASA space shots involving materials must be cancelled in the wake of the Columbia disaster and safe space energy systems be used instead,” declares Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network.

However, in addition to lobbying from those who manufacture space nuclear systems and from the national nuclear laboratories, especially Los Alamos, long involved in space nuclear power development, there is new pressure to use atomic power in space from the man President George W. Bush appointed to be NASA administrator.
"As a youngster Sean O'Keefe didn't have to go far to learn about nuclear technology—his family's dinner table was far enough. There, O'Keefe's father, a nuclear submariner, regaled his son with descriptions of the complex workings of the sub's propulsion system. Decades later those dining room tutorials would pay dividends to O'Keefe, who heads the National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” noted a January article in the monthly newsletter of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main nuclear industry trade organization in the U.S.

From this background, O’Keefe “envisions the development of nuclear propulsion systems for spacecraft powered by nuclear technology,” says the piece.

Secretary of the Navy under the first President Bush, O'Keefe is quoted in the article as describing the operations of the Navy's nuclear propulsion program as "flawless" and says, "It's simply taking it to the next couple of levels" in employing atomic power for space. O’Keefe told the Los Angeles Times for an article published January 17: “We’re talking about doing something on a very aggressive schedule to not only develop the capabilities for nuclear propulsion and power generation but to have a mission using the new technology within this decade.”

Project Prometheus, would be pushed as scientists in the European Space Agency—ESA, the European counterpart of NASA—and in 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.

ESA has been working on the Rosetta project to launch a space probe with all its on-board electricity coming from solar cells with a record 25% efficiency to fly beyond Jupiter and rendezvous with a comet. ESA is “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”(the plutonium system NASA favors for its space probes).

NASA has a division—its Photovoltaics and Space Environment Branch headquartered at the John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland—which, like ESA, has been working on space solar energy development. There is no “edge” or limit to solar power, says a scientist at the branch, Dr. Geoffrey A. Landis, on its website. “In the long term, solar arrays won’t 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.”

Solar energy technologies are being used now to propel spacecraft. NASA’s Deep Space 1 probe, launched in 1998, is the first space probe to be propelled with solar electric propulsion.

There are “solar sails” utilizing ionized particles emitted by the Sun which constitute a force in space. A space device with solar sails built in Russia for the International Planetary Society was launched in 2001.

In contrast, NASA’s renewed emphasis on nuclear power in space “is not only dangerous but politically unwise,” says Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical 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.”

“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” 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.”

Yet despite the dangers and the advances in solar energy technologies and other safe forms of power for use in space, NASA would stress 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.

On April 24, 1964, a satellite energized by an on-board plutonium system, a General Electric-built SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power), failed to achieve orbit and fell from the sky, disintegrating as it dropped.

The 2.1 pounds of Plutonium-238 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.”

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 early work at isolating plutonium and is the co-discoverer of several radioisotopes.

The SNAP-9A 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. So is the International Space Station.

But NASA continued to use plutonium-powered systems for a series of space probe missions claiming solar power could not be effectively gathered for space probes.
The ill-fated shuttle Challenger was to launch a plutonium-fueled space probe in its next planned mission in 1986. The probe, named Ulysses, was to be sent off after Challenger achieved orbit to study the Sun.

The most recent NASA 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 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 Earth’s 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.” As for “decontamination methods,” NASA listed as remedies: “Demolish some or all structures. Relocate affected population permanently.” Dr. Gofman estimated the toll from cancer in the event of the plutonium on Cassini being released at 950,000 people dead.

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, Poodle and Orion followed.

Ground tests of nuclear rocket components were conducted. But no nuclear-propelled rocket ever flew and because of the catastrophe that could result if a nuclear-powered rocket crashed to Earth, the government ended the program ended.
Now in 2003, NASA would rocket back to the past.

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

“Nuclear power,” says Sally Light, also a Global Network board member, “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.”

Space operations are dangerous as the Columbia tragedy again showed. Nuclear poisons must not be allowed to be factored into the risky equation and vastly expand the danger—to life on Earth.

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 and narrator and writer of video documentaries on space nuclear power produced by EnviroVideo

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