Nukes-in-Space in Columbia’s Wake


Columbia shuttle disaster came just as NASA was pushing to greatly
broaden its program to use nuclear power in space. This includes
the development of a  nuclear-propelled rocket—a project
that NASA spent billions of dollars on in the 1950s and 1960s until
it was canceled because of concerns that such a nuclear rocket crashing
to earth. The new space nuclear power scheme, called Project Prometheus,
is a broadening of the NASA Nuclear Systems Initiative—on which
$1 billion is to be spent over five years—that began last year.
In addition to a nuclear- powered rocket, NASA is planning an additional
plutonium-energized space probe and to put atomic power to other
space uses including the launching of planetary rovers with nuclear

May and June NASA is planning 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. 

Environmental Impact Statement for the Mars Exploration Rover-2003
Project says, “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 60 kilometers from
the launch site could be impacted, says NASA. 

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

Nuclear Systems Initiative was described as “a new element”
in NASA’s “space science program by O’Keefe in testimony
before the House of Representatives Committee on Science last February. 

propulsion greatly increases mission flexibility, enabling new science
missions, more in-depth investigations, and greater flexibility
in reaching and exploring distant objects,” he told the committee. 

the weeks before the Columbia disaster, O’Keefe was stepping
up the promotion of nukes in space. “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,”
he told the

Los Angeles Times

of January 17. 

month, ESA got set to launch a solar-powered space probe called
Rosetta with all its on-board electricity coming from solar cells
with record-high 25 percent efficiency. It was to fly beyond Jupiter
to rendezvous with a comet called Wirtanen. 

with an ESA rocket caused the mission to be scrubbed. Rosetta is
to be, notes ESA, “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 systems NASA favors for its space probes). It would
gather sunlight way out in space. “After a 5.3 billion km space
odyssey, Rosetta will make first contact with Wirtanen about 675
million km from the sun,” explained ESA. “At this distance,
sunlight is 20 times weaker than on earth.” 

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.” 

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, a system through which
electricity collected by panels is concentrated and used to accelerate
the movement of propellant out a thrust chamber. 

are “solar sails” utilizing ionized particles emitted
by the sun, which constitute a force in space. NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory is considering a launch, at the end of the decade, of
a space probe to Pluto using either solar sails or solar electric
propulsion. A space device with solar sails built in Russia for
the International Planetary Society was launched in 2001. 

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.” 

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.” 

Ross McCluney, a former NASA scientist now principal research scientist
at the Florida Solar Energy Center, says NASA’s push for the
use of nuclear power in space is “an example of tunnel vision,
focusing too narrowly on what appears to be a good engineering solution,
but not on the longer-term human and environmental risks and the
law of unintended consequences. You think you’re in control
of everything and then things happen beyond your control. If your
project is inherently benign, an unexpected error can be tolerated.
But when you have at your project’s core something inherently
dangerous, then the consequences of unexpected failures can be great.” 

Jack Dixon,
for 30 years an aerospace engineer in the U.S., takes issue with
those against nuclear power in space for being critical of it for
“politically correct,” anti-nuclear reasons. His criticism
is cost—what he says is an enormous cost. The solar sail system
“may be implemented at about 10% of the cost of nuclear and
quickly.” It is “simple and relatively low tech.” 

despite the costs, dangers, and the advances in solar energy technologies
and other safe forms of power for use in space, NASA would stress
nuclear power. 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. Like terrestrial atomic power, space
nuclear power has a problematic past. 

U.S. space satellites were powered by plutonium. The first nuclear
satellite was Transit 4A, a navigational satellite launched on June
29, 1961.  It was a time when space and nuclear power were
seen by some as coupled. Space exploration “in large measure
depends upon the common destiny of space and the atom,” former
U.S. Senator Albert Gore—a parent of the former U.S. vice president—declared
in a 1962 Senate speech. Importantly, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
is in Gore’s home state. Oak Ridge and the other U.S. nuclear
laboratories then and to this day have promoted the development
of space atomic power as a means of expanding their activities,
to bring in more work. Gore, a member of the Joint Congressional
Committee on Atomic Energy, advocated nuclear-powered rockets and
atomic power “for a wide variety of miscellaneous functions
in space…. Nuclear energy is essential for leadership in space.” 

with the national nuclear laboratories—set up during the World
War II atom bomb-building Manhattan Project and thereafter run by
the Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy—the
corporations involved in building space nuclear systems have also
been active in promoting their use. The Transit 4A’s plutonium
system was manufactured by General Electric.  

there was a serious accident involving a plutonium-energized satellite.
On April 24, 1964, the GE-built Transit 5BN with a SNAP-9A (SNAP
for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) system on-board failed to achieve
orbit and fell from the sky, disintegrating as it burned in the
atmosphere. The 2.1 pounds of Plutonium-238 (an isotope of plutonium
280 times “hotter” with radioactivity than the Plutonium-239
used in atomic and hydrogen bombs) 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 later reported, “a
worldwide soil sampling program carried out in 1970 showed SNAP-9A
debris present at all continents and at all latitudes.” 

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, who was involved in
isolating plutonium for the Manhattan Project and co-discovered
several radioisotopes. 

SNAP-9A accident caused NASA to become a pioneer in developing solar
photovoltaic energy technology. 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 by space probes beyond the orbit of Mars. 

ill-fated shuttle Challenger was to launch a plutonium-fueled space
probe in its next planned mission in 1986. The Ulysses space probe,
with 24.2 pounds of plutonium fuel, was to be sent off from Challenger,
once it achieved orbit for a survey of the sun. 

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 previous space device. NASA conceded the dangers of a Cassini
accident in its “Final Environmental Impact Statement for the
Cassini Mission.” Although its destination was Saturn, Cassini
did not have enough power to get it directly there, so NASA devised
a “flyby” or “slingshot maneuver” using the
earth. Cassini was to be sent from space hurtling back at Earth
and then, just several hundred miles high, whip around Earth to
pick up the additional velocity so it could make it to Saturn. The
NASA EIS for Cassini said that on this “flyby” if an “inadvertent
reentry occurred” and Cassini fell back to earth, it would
break up in the earth’s 75-mile high atmosphere (it had no
heat shield) and “5 billion of the…world population…could
receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure” from
the plutonium dust that would rain down. In areas seriously contaminated,
NASA said actions would include: “Remove and dispose all vegetation,
Remove and dispose topsoil. Relocate animals. Bn future agricultural
land uses.” For urban environments, “Demolish some or
all structures. Relocate affected population permanently.”
Dr. Gofman estimated the toll from cancer from such a Cassini accident
as 950,000 people dead. Although Cassini did get past the earth
successfully on its 1999 “flyby,” six weeks later NASA’s
Mars Climate Observer, on a pass over Mars, crashed into the Martian
atmosphere and disintegrated. NASA attributed the mishap to human
error—one of its teams calculated the planned altitude of the
spacecraft in feet, the other in meters, and it came in too low. 

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 to build nuclear-powered
rockets followed. 

was a major contractor in these nuclear rocket efforts. A former
Westinghouse president, John W. Simpson, acknowledged in his 1994
book on the history of the company (

Nuclear Power from Underseas
to Outer Space

) how to get the government contracts, “believe
me, we pulled out all the stops—not only technical effort but
also marketing and political savvy.” 

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. Now in 2003 we would rocket back to the past. 

says: “Serious questions need to be asked: Where will they
test the nuclear rocket? How much will it cost? What would be the
impacts of a launch accident? These nuclearization of space plans
are getting dangerous and out of control.” Also, Gagnon sees
a military connection, describing the use of nuclear power in space
as “the foot in the door, the Trojan horse, for the militarization
of space.” Space weapons sought by the military— space-based
lasers, hyper-velocity guns and particle beams —would require
large amounts of power which the military sees as coming from on-board
nuclear power systems, thus the close cooperation between the Pentagon
and NASA in space nuclear efforts. Said Gagnon: “We’re
not saying there shouldn’t be any space program. It’s
a question of what kind of seed do we carry with us out into space.” 

Dave Webb, who had been a scientist in the British space program
and is now principal lecturer at the United Kingdom’s Leeds
Metropolitan University’s School of Engineering, and is also
Global Network secretary, says, “Star Wars projects like the
Space- Based Laser require significant sources of power and it is
very useful for the U.S. government to be able to bury some of the
costs for the development work in ‘civilian’ or ‘dual
use’ programs.” 

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?” 

power whether in space or on Earth is a risky business,” says
Sally Light, long-time executive director of the anti-nuclear Nevada
Desert Experience and also a Global 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.” The commitment of huge amounts of money to the
Nuclear Systems Initiative, now Project Prometheus, “is unconscionable.
Did the people of Earth have a voice in this? One of the basic principles
of democracy is that those affected have a determinative role in
the decision-making process. We in the U.S. and people worldwide
are faced with a dangerous, high-risk situation being forced on
us and on our descendents.”

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 Plane

t (Common Courage