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The Curiosity Mission: Nukes in Space
NASA intends in coming weeks to launch a rover to be deployed on Mars fueled with 10.6 pounds of plutonium. Opponents of the launch in Florida, concerned about an accident releasing deadly plutonium, such as the explosion of the rocket that’s to loft the rover, have created a Facebook page warning people not to visit Disney theme parks in Orlando during the November 25-to-December 15 launch window. “Don’t Do Disney brought to you by NASA,” the Facebook page is titled. Other actions are planned.
Indeed, NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission says a launch accident discharging plutonium has a 1-in-420 chance of happening and could “release material into the regional area defined…to be within…62 miles of the launch pad,” That’s an area including Orlando.
The EIS says “overall” on the mission, the likelihood of plutonium being released is just 1-in-220. This could affect a major portion of Earth in an accident which vaporizes and disperses plutonium from the rover, called Curiosity, as the Atlas 5 rocket carrying it up gains altitude.
The EIS says an accident releasing plutonium in the troposphere, the atmosphere five to nine miles high, is “assumed to potentially affect persons living within a latitude band from approximately 23-degrees north to 30-degrees north.” That’s a swath through the Caribbean, across North Africa and the Middle East, then parts of India and China, Hawaii and other Pacific islands, Mexico, and south Texas.
If there’s an accident resulting in plutonium fallout which occurs above that and before the rocket breaks through Earth’s gravitational field, people could be affected “anywhere between 28-degrees north and 28-degrees south latitude,” says the EIS. That’s a band around the mid-section of the Earth which includes much of South America, Africa and Australia.
The EIS says the cost of decontamination of areas affected by the plutonium would be $267 million for each square mile of farmland, $478 million for each square mile of forests and $1.5 billion for each square mile of “mixed-use urban areas.”
The mission itself has a cost of $2.5 billion.
“NASA is planning a mission that could endanger not only its future but the state of Florida and beyond,” declares John Stewart of Pax Christi Tampa Bay, a leader in Florida in challenging the launch. “The absurd—and maddening—aspect of this risk is that it is unnecessary,” says Stewart, a teacher. “The locomotion for NASA’s Sojourner Mars rover, launched in 1996, and the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, both launched in 2003, was solar powered, with the latter two rovers performing well beyond what their engineers expected. Curiosity’s locomotion could also be solar-powered. NASA admits this in its EIS, but decided to put us all at risk because plutonium-powered batteries last longer and they want to have the ‘flexibility to select the most scientifically interesting location on the surface’ of Mars.”
Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, which has been opposing NASA’s nuclear missions for two decades, says “NASA sadly appears committed to maintaining its dangerous alliance with the nuclear industry. Both entities view space as a new market for the deadly plutonium fuel. The taxpayers are being asked once again to pay for nuclear missions that could endanger the lives of all the people on the planet. Have we not learned anything from Chernobyl and Fukushima? We don’t need to be launching nukes into space. It’s not a gamble we can afford to take.”
Since the 1950s, NASA has used nuclear power in space—and there have been accidents. Of the 26 U.S. space missions listed in the EIS that have used plutonium, three underwent accidents, the EIS admits. The worst occurred in 1964 and involved, it notes, the SNAP-9A plutonium system aboard a satellite that failed to achieve orbit and dropped to earth, disintegrating as it fell. The 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel dispersed widely over the Earth.
The late Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, long linked this accident to an increase in global lung cancer. With the SNAP-9A accident, NASA switched to solar energy on satellites. Now all satellites and the International Space Station are solar powered.
But NASA insisted on using plutonium as a power source on space probes—claiming that solar energy cannot be utilized beyond the orbit of Mars. But this August it reversed itself with the launch of the solar-powered Juno space probe to Jupiter.
In its description of the Juno mission, NASA states that even when the probe gets to Jupiter, “nearly 500 million miles from the Sun,” its panels will be providing electricity.
The choice of solar power by NASA on Juno was less than voluntary, however. The Associated Press has described Scott Bolton, the principal investigator for the Juno mission for the Southwest Research Institute, a NASA contractor, as maintaining “the choice of solar was a practical one…No plutonium-powered generators were available to him and his San Antonio-based team nearly a decade ago so they opted for solar panels rather than develop a new nuclear source.”
The plutonium-fueled Curiosity mission could herald an expanded NASA space nuclear power program—not just for space probes but involving nuclear-propelled rockets.
During the 1950s and 60s, NASA, working with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, built such rockets under a program called NERVA (for Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) and then Projects Pluto, Rover and Poodle. Billions in 1950s-1960s dollars were spent and ground-testing done, but no nuclear rocket ever got off the ground. There were concerns about a nuclear rocket blowing up on launch and crashing back to Earth.
Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and U.S. Marine Corps major general, President Obama’s appointee to head NASA, is a big booster of nuclear-propulsion for rockets. He has been pushing a design developed by a fellow ex-astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, who has founded the Ad Astra Rocket Company.
With NASA turning over many space activities to private industry with the end of its shuttle program, another major private company involved is SpaceX. The website of the journal Nature reported last year that SpaceX wants the U.S. government to “return to developing nuclear-powered rockets pursued during the 1960s”—and specifically NERVA. “We have to do nuclear,” stated Tom Markusic, director of the company’s rocket development facility.
Meanwhile, not only have great advances been made in using solar energy as a power source in space—as demonstrated by the Juno space probe mission—but also in propelling spacecraft and quickly in the vacuum of space. Last year, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched what it termed a “space yacht” called Ikaros which gets propulsion from the pressure on its large sails of ionizing particles emitted by the Sun. The sails also feature “thin-film solar cells to generate electricity and creating,” said Yuichi Tsuda of the agency, “a hybrid technology of electricity and pressure.”
The Curiosity rover and the Atlas V rocket on which it is to ride were positioned for launch last week at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A Florida Today website account—as has been typical in coverage by the mainstream media of NASA’s nuclear program—in reporting this omitted the words plutonium and nuclear and made no reference to the danger s acknowledged in the EIS of the nuclear aspect of the mission.
Plutonium has long been described as the most lethal radioactive substance. And the plutonium isotope used in the space nuclear program, and on the Curiosity rover, is far more radioactive than the type of plutonium used as fuel in nuclear weapons or built up as a waste product in nuclear power plants.
It is Plutonium-238 as distinct from Plutonium-239. Plutonium-238 has a far shorter half-life–87.8 years compared to Plutonium-239 with a half-life of 24,500 years. An isotope’s half-life is the period in which half of its radioactivity is expended.
Dr. Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear physicist and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, explains that Plutonium-238 “is about 270 times more radioactive than Plutonium-239 per unit of weight.” Thus in radioactivity, the 10.6 pounds of Plutonium-238 that is to be used on Curiosity is the equivalent of 2,862 pounds of Plutonium-239. The atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki used 15 pounds of Plutonium-239.
The far shorter half-life of Plutonium-238 compared to Plutonium-239 results in it being extremely hot. This heat is translated in a radioisotope thermoelectric generator into electricity.
The pathway of greatest health concern for plutonium is breathing in a particle. A millionth of a gram of plutonium can be a fatal dose. The EIS for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission speaks of particles that would be “transported to and remain in the trachea, bronchi, or deep lung regions.” The particles “would continuously irradiate lung tissue.”
It also describes “secondary social costs associated with the decontamination and mitigation activities” including: “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; restriction or bans on commercial fishing; and public health effects and medical care.”
Pax Christi is asking people to call, email or write NASA and, says Stewart, state “that until they can launch spacecraft without nuclear materials aboard, they should not launch at all.” Also, it is calling for people to contact the White House “and tell President Obama that Curiosity should stay safely on the ground until it can be launched without threatening us and future generations.”
A petition to the White House—“Cancel the Launch of the Mars Rover Curiosity by NASA Which is Powered by Dangerous Plutonium-238”—has also been put up on the Internet for people to sign. It is at: https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions/!/petition/cancel-launch-mars-rover-curiosity-nasa-which-powered-dangerous-plutonium-238/8HzzWHk9
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet (Common Courage Press) and wrote and presented the TV program Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (www.envirovideo.com).