NASA Drops Plutonium; Goes Solar
Embracing Global Warming

September 21, 2006

NASA Drops Plutonium, Goes Solar
Karl Grossman

NASA has cancelled plans for this nuclear-powered probe to Jupiter. The mission will now be accomplished with clean, safe solar-power. Credit: NASA
For years NASA insisted it couldn't be done. Beyond the orbit of Mars, NASA said, solar energy could not be used to generate electricity for onboard power on space devices.

So the agency used the extremely dangerous nuclear substance, plutonium, as fuel in electric generating systems and people on Earth were put at great risk in the event of an accident.

For instance, in 1997 NASA launched its Cassini plutonium-fueled space probe and in 1999 had Cassini hurtle back at Earth in a "slingshot maneuver" to increase its velocity so it could get to Saturn. If there was what NASA called an "inadvertent reentry" of Cassini into the Earth's atmosphere during the "slingshot maneuver" just a few hundred miles up, it would disintegrate and "5 billion... of the world population... could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure," NASA admitted in its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission.

The death toll from a Cassini accident was put by Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, at 20 million to 40 million.

And this is not a sky-is-falling story. Of 28 US space missions using plutonium, there have been three accidents, the worst in 1964 in which a plutonium-powered satellite fell back to Earth, breaking up and spreading the toxic radioactive substance widely.

That caused NASA to develop solar power for satellites -- and today all satellites (and the International Space Station) are energized by solar panels. But, insisted NASA, in deep space sunlight is too weak and solar energy could not work, only plutonium would.

Now the leading space industry trade magazine, Aviation Week & Space Technology, reveals that solar energy is to be used by NASA to substitute for nuclear power in deep space. The recent article began: "Budget and technical realities have led NASA to put its once-ambitious space nuclear power plans on a slow track, but development in solar power generation should allow new scientific probes beyond Mars to operate without nuclear energy.

The US space agency is already planning a solar-powered mission to study the atmosphere of Jupiter, and has looked at sending probes as deep into space as Neptune using only the Suns energy for spacecraft and instrument power& It is all but certain the next US deep-space missions will be solar-powered."

The piece went on describe the new giant solar energy systems that will be used to harvest solar energy at record efficiencies vast distances from the Sun.

Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, comments that "for years NASA said that the Global Network didn't know what we were talking about when it came to solar power working in deep space. Now NASA is planning to do what we've been saying all along they could do. It just goes to show that if you are willing to stay on-top of an issue for a long time that something good can come from your hard work."

Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Snake River Alliance, an Idaho group that's been challenging the use of Idaho National Laboratory to produce plutonium for space power systems, says, "It's good to see plutonium space batteries following in the steps of the now demoted planet Pluto. We've said since day one that plutonium is unnecessary and dangerous, and that we can do the same job a better way, and now we're seeing what that better way is solar."

What's to happen in space is what should also happen on Earth. The Bush administration and nuclear industry are pushing for a "revival" of nuclear power.

We don't need to take the enormous risk of building new nuclear plants -- or having nuclear poisons over our heads. Safe energy technologies are here.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of The Wrong Stuff (Common Courage Press) and narrator of the TV documentary Nukes In Space (

Embracing Global Warming
Commentary by Captain Paul Watson

Sea Sheperd Founder Paul Watson has global warming on his mind. Credit: Edge graphic.
One thing that I am absolutely convinced of is that global warming is not an imminent threat. It is not something that we should be trying to prevent for the simple reason that global warming is not the future.

Global warming is now. It is a today. It is a clear and present reality. For those who do not believe that global warming has arrived, they can only fantasize denial for a little longer. We are all in the midst of it, and the world is quickly changing and that change is accelerating rapidly.

The Kyoto Protocol was a big waste of time and money. The United States was right to not sign it although for the wrong reasons. It was just the usual let's have a conference where we will once again do very little to address a problem we should have done something about decades before. In the end it was all about signing some papers and patting each other on the back for being ecologically correct.

An Inconvenient Truth is an entertaining second wind for a failed politician but it simply is little more than a scary movie without practical solutions. Al Gore, a man with a very big ecological footprint wants the rest of us to leave a shallow ecological footstep. The Earth can be saved if we do as he suggests. He also seriously believes we will be saved with the return of Jesus Christ.

Is the Earth threatened by global warming? Not really. The earth will adapt as the Earth has always adapted. This planet has witnessed and endured phases of warming and cooling of violent extremes. Climate change has been the leading cause of habitat disruption and species extermination for a few billion years.

There is nothing new about global warming except this time we the human species are responsible and we the human species will reap what we have sown. This is nothing unnatural because we as a species evolved naturally and we are very much children of this planet. We are incapable of doing anything contrary to the laws of nature, at least not for long, before the consequences come around and smack us smartly in the back of the head like a nun scolding us for talking during class.

Except that the consequences may be a trifle bit more severe than an angry sister Mary of perpetual discipline.

Which brings us to the next question and the one most important to human society in the present. Is global warming a threat to human civilization?

The answer is quite possibly and most likely a qualified yes.

Rising sea levels, more violent storms, changing ocean currents, drought, flooding, famine better conditions for insect and bacterial species and thus more virulent and new disease, more forest fires and assorted inconveniences will certainly be a cause for concern, especially for people in the coming decades. On the other hand humans historically only seem to react, adapt, and thrive to adversity. Perhaps our survival will be because of our folly that brings us to an environment of perpetual adversity.

Natural history tells us that periods of global warming are beneficial for increasing biological diversity. Humans have been a leading cause of diminishment of diversity over the last few thousand years. For every action there is a reaction and diminishment of diversity by humans appears to be in a stage of being corrected by the activities of humanity that are contributing to global warming.

Ecologists should not be fearing global warming. We should be embracing it as a solution to the serious human caused problem of loss of bio-diversity. What may not be good for civilization may well be very beneficial for the revival and rejuvenation of global eco-systems.

We certainly should not be wasting our energies trying to prevent something that has already begun and is unstoppable. The fact remains that if we stopped production of all greenhouse gas emissions today, the climate change juggernaut is well on its way like a runaway train on a steep decline.

And the reality is that even faced with a 100% certainty of the collapse of civilization in one hundred years, human society will not abandon the present economic and cultural pressures that are the cause of our greenhouse gas emissions.

We will not stop driving cars, flying in airplanes, heating our homes, cutting down our forests, burning coal and oil for power and over-fishing the seas. We will not stop over breeding and expanding our numbers. We will not because we are culturally wired towards short-term survival. Material gratification today and in the near future guides our actions more than abstract long term academic concerns. We tend to take today and worry about tomorrow -- well, tomorrow.

Nature's great, brief, experiment in intelligent primate dominance of the Earth may turn out to be a super big glorious mistake. In the end we may only have succeeded in creating the conditions to better the lives of insects and ferns, which may not be a bad thing because at least after the collapse of our civilizations -- the earth will abide.

Captain Paul Watson is the Founder and President of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), Co-Founder of Greenpeace International and The Greenpeace Foundation. He is also director of The Farley Mowat Institute and Harpseals ( He served as a Director of the Sierra Club USA from 2003-2006. SSCS. PO Box 2616, Friday Harbor, WA 98250 USA. (360) 370-5650; Fax: 360-370-5651.

For more information contact:

Home | Background | News | Links | Donate | Contact Us |

(510) THE-EDGE (843-3343)
E-mail us at