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Down at the Nuclear Launchpad

The Curiosity Mission and Catastrophe Tourism

by KARL GROSSMAN

With NASA intending to launch a plutonium-fueled rover from Florida on Saturday—and admitting that a launch pad accident releasing the deadly plutonium fuel could reach as far as 62 miles away—the issue being raised by the area’s tourism officials is whether the launch will attract tourists.

“Can Curiosity Draw the Crowds?” was the recent Florida Today headline. A sub-head: “Tourism Officials Hope Mars Launch Will Lure Observers to the Space Coast.”

It quotes Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, as saying: “The timing of this is perfect. We don’t always fill up on Thanksgiving weekend, but I think this will help. I think people will hear there is a launch and say, ‘Let’s go there, watch the launch, eat dinner, whatever.”

The piece added that the launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station “carries a little extra significance due to the plutonium fuel aboard the spacecraft.” But, it noted, “Extensive emergency preparations were required before the mission received approval to launch, and multiple layers of protections have been built into the craft.”

Don’t worry. Be happy.

At least Florida Today mentioned plutonium in the article. The Washington Post in an extensive piece – “NASA Mars Mission To Test Planet for Ability to Sustain Life” – did not mention the words plutonium or nuclear at all.

Neither did The New York Times in a front page story this week – “On Mars Rover, Tools to Plumb a Methane Mystery.”

Better not to know about those 10.6 pounds of toxic plutonium.

Some folks in Florida have, however, gotten the word. And, mobilized by Pax Christi Tampa Bay and other groups, they were protesting over the weekend carrying placards that declared: “No Nukes In Space” and “Danger: Launching of NASA Mars Probe With 10 Lbs. Plutonium. Don’t Do Disney.” That referred to Disney theme parks in Orlando.

NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Mars Science Laboratory 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,”

Historically, one in 100 rockets destruct at launch.

If this Atlas rocket carrying the plutonium-fueled rover, which NASA calls Curiosity, does make it up but then falls back to Earth—that would set up an even a greater disaster.

There’s a model for that up in the sky right now: Russia’s Phobos-Grunt space probe launched on November 9 to go to a moon of Mars. But it never broke out of the Earth’s gravitational field. Its rocket system failed to fire it onward from low Earth orbit. Now it’s expected to fall back to Earth in January, disintegrating in a fiery re-entry when it hits the Earth’s atmosphere.

If that is what happens to Curiosity and its 10.6 pounds of plutonium fuel is released, NASA’s EIS acknowledges that the plutonium could spread widely over the Earth.

In its EIS, NASA designates this as an accident during: “Phase 4 (Orbital/Escape): Accidents which occur after attaining parking orbit could result in orbital decay reentries from minutes to years after the accident affecting Earth surfaces between approximately 28-degrees north latitude and 28-degrees south latitude.”

Between 28 degrees north and 28-degrees south latitudes covers much of South America, Africa and Australia.  NASA gives odds of 1-in-830 for the “probability of a release” of plutonium in such an accident.

An especially uncritical piece of reporting this week on the Curiosity venture was on “FLORIDA SPACErePORT”

It provided an assurance that the isotope of plutonium used in space devices, Plutonium-238, “is not used in weapons and cannot explode like a bomb. It does not emit the type of penetrating radioactivity that can cause serious health problems. It emits alpha radiation, a type that is easily shielded. It cannot penetrate the skin, clothing, even a sheet of paper. It is only dangerous to humans if pulverized into a fine dust that subsequently is inhaled or ingested.”

Yes, and that is exactly what could happen in an explosion on launch and, even more likely, in a fiery re-entry of a space device with Plutonium-238 into the atmosphere.

Putting Plutonium-238 on space devices which can disintegrate over our heads and cause plutonium to rain down in fine particles—plutonium which people can breathe in—maximizes  the lethality of plutonium.

A millionth of a gram of plutonium is a fatal dose. Plutonium-238, furthermore, is 270 times more radioactive than the common isotope of plutonium, Plutonium-239, used as fuel in atomic bombs.

A fall from orbit of a plutonium-fueled satellite in 1964 caused fine particles of Plutonium-238 to fall out all over the Earth. The late Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, long linked this accident involving a SNAP-9A plutonium system aboard the satellite to an increase in global lung cancer. With that accident, NASA switched to solar energy on satellites. Now all satellites and the International Space Station are solar powered. The SNAP-9A accident is cited in the NASA EIS for the Curiosity shot as being among the three accidents that have occurred among the 26 U.S. space missions which have used plutonium.

Still, insisted Martin LaMonica this week, senior writer for CNET’s Green Tech blog, “Nuclear ‘Space Battery’ Bests Solar in Curiosity Mars Mission,” as the piece was headlined.

Sure, rovers sent to Mars up to now have used solar power for locomotion. But LaMonica quoted Stephen Johnson, director of the Idaho National Laboratory’s Space Nuclear Systems and Technology Division, as saying: “You can operate with solar panels on Mars. You just can’t operate everywhere.”

So to go “everywhere” we are to endanger life on Earth? To try to see about life on Mars we would threaten life on Earth?

The NASA EIS says the cost of decontamination of areas on Earth affected by plutonium discharged in an accident from Curiosity 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.

And the odds for disaster are low, acknowledges NASA in its EIS. The EIS says “overall” on the mission, the likelihood of plutonium being released is 1-in-220. How many people would get on an airplane or take a drive in a car if they knew there was a 1-in-220 chance of not making it.

Further, if Curiosity does make it up and out, it will be just one trigger pull in a game of spaceborne Russian roulette—if NASA gets its way.  For not only is NASA seeking to do more space missions using plutonium but it is developing rockets powered by nuclear energy.

Demanding that this all be stopped is Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space www.space4peace.org  “The taxpayers are being asked once again to pay for nuclear missions that could endanger the lives of all the people on the planet,” he says. “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.”

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, has long investigated the use of nuclear power in space. He is the author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet (Common Courage Press), and writer and presenter of the TV documentary Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (www.envirovideo.com).