In Columbia's Wake: Nukes-in-Space
By Karl Grossman
February 14, 2003

The 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 which NASA spent billions of dollars on in the 1950s and 60s until it was cancelled because of concern of such a nuclear rocket crashing to earth.

Just think if it was a nuclear rocket that came falling down in pieces over Texas or elsewhere on 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.

However, as the Los Angeles Times reported last month, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is expecting a "very significant" increase in that funding as the Nuclear Systems Initiative becomes Project Prometheus.

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

Coming this Summer: NASA Goes Nuclear

Indeed, this 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.

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 60 kilometers 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.

The Nuclear Systems Initiative was described as a "a new element" in NASA's "space science program: by O'Keefe in testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Science last February. Three months earlier, O'Keefe - secretary of Navy under President George H. Bush - was named NASA chief by President George W. Bush.

"Nuclear 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.

In 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 in its story published on January 17.

Project Prometheus

The Nuclear Systems Initiative, or, as it is now to be called, 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.

Last 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% efficiency. It was to fly beyond Jupiter to rendezvous with a comet called Wirtanen.

Problems 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."

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

There 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.

Chernobyls in the Sky

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 and author of best-selling books including "Hyperspace." "The only thing that can kill the US 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."

Dr. 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 US, 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."

Yet 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. 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.


Early US 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 US Senator Albert Gore - the father of the former US vice president - declared in a 1962 Senate speech. Importantly, in Gore's home state is Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Oak Ridge and the other US 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."

Along 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 and 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.

Then 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 which is 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 that "a worldwide soil sampling program carried out in 1970 showed SNAP-9A debris present at all continents and at all latitudes."

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 isolating plutonium for the Manhattan Project has argued that the SNAP-9A accident was responsible for a subsequent increase of lung cancer around the world.

The SNAP-9A accident caused NASA to become a pioneer in developing solar photovoltaic energy technology. In recent decades, all US 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.

A World at Risk: The Cassini "Fly-by"

The 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.

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 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 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. Ban future agricultural land uses." And 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. The mishap was attributed by NASA 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 US 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 Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application program. Projects Pluto, Rover, Poodle and Orion to build nuclear-powered rockets followed. Westinghouse was a major contractor in these nuclear rocket efforts.

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 we would rocket back to the past.

Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, 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, hypervelocity 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.

Dr. 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 US government to be able to bury some of the costs for the development work in 'civilian' or 'dual use' programs."

"Nuclear 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. "Why is the US 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 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 US and people worldwide are faced with a dangerous, high-risk situation being forced on us and on our descendents."

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 Plane" (Common Courage Press) and narrator and writer of "Nukes In Space" video documentaries available from EnviroVideo at or 1-800-ECO-TV46.

For more information contact:
Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space
PO Box 90083 Gainesville
FL 32607
Tel.(352) 337-9274

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