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The Toxic Crash of Phobos-Grunt

Russia’s Phobos-Grunt space probe, with 22 pounds of radioactive Cobalt-57 on board, fell to Earth Sunday. The probe was launched in November to go to Phobos, a moon of Mars, but its rocket system failed to fire it onward from low Earth orbit.

There is some confusion as to where pieces of the 14.9-ton probe fell. The Associated Press reported Sunday that “pieces…landed in water 1,250 kilometers west of Wellington Island in Chile’s south, the Russian military Air and Space Defense Forces said in a statement.” The AP dispatch, datelined Moscow, quoted a spokesman, Colonel Alexei Zolotukhin, as saying that this “deserted ocean area is where Russia guides its discarded space cargo ships serving the International Space Station.”

But, the article went on: “RIA Novosti news agency, however, cited Russian ballistic experts who said the fragments fell over a broader patch of Earth’s surface, spreading from the Atlantic and including the territory of Brazil. It said the midpoint of the crash zone was located in the Brazilian state of Goias.”

“The $170 million craft was one of the heaviest and most toxic pieces of space junk ever to crash to Earth, but space officials and experts said the risks posed by its crash were minimal because the toxic rocket fuel on board and most of the craft’s structure would burn up in the atmosphere high above the Earth anyway,” said the article by Vladimir Isachenkov.

What happened demonstrates what could have occurred to the plutonium-fueled rover which NASA calls Curiosity which it launched on November 26 on a voyage to Mars.  Curiosity’s launch went without incident. It is now on its way to Mars. But it could have ended up like Phobos-Grunt—falling back to Earth from orbit, its 10.6 pounds of plutonium released as deadly radioactive dust.

Moreover, the United States and Russia are both planning to launch other space devices with nuclear materials on board. Accidents involving discharge of nuclear materials is inevitable—they’ve already occurred in both the U.S. and Russian/Soviet space programs.

NASA is not only planning more space missions using plutonium but it is developing nuclear-powered rockets. Some of the rocket designs go back to the 1950s and 60s and the projects had come to an end out of concern of such a rocket blowing up on launch or falling back to Earth. Further, NASA is planning nuclear-powered colonies on the Moon and Mars. These nuclear power systems would be launched from Earth—and there could be release of radioactive material in an accident on launch or a subsequent crash back to Earth.

Involved is a lethal game of space-borne nuclear Russian roulette.

The Phobos-Grunt space probe “got stranded in Earth’s orbit after its Nov. 9 launch,” said the AP, “and efforts by Russian and European Space Agency exports to bring it back to life failed.”  Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, then estimated that Phobos-Grunt would fall to Earth in January and it would come down along a swatch that included southern Europe, the Atlantic, South America and the Pacific.

Roscosmos “predicted that only between 20 and 40 fragments” of the probe “with a total weight of up to 200 kilograms—440 pounds—would survive the re-entry and plummet to Earth,”  the AP said.

The Cobalt-57 was contained in “one of the craft’s instruments,” said AP. Roscomos, it said, claimed the Cobalt-57 posed “no threat of radioactive contamination.”

Indeed, Cobalt-57 is not plutonium, considered the most deadly radioactive substance. Nevertheless, it still can be harmful.

As the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory says in a “Human Health Fact Sheet,” available at http://www.evs.anl.gov/pub/doc/Cobalt.pdf, Cobalt-57 has a half-life of 270 days, “long enough to warrant concern.” (The hazardous lifetime of a radioactive material is 10 to 20 times its half-life.) The “Human Health Fact Sheets” notes that Cobalt-57 can cause cancer. It “can be taken into the body by eating food, drinking water, or breathing.”

The AP article Sunday said the $170 million Phobos-Grunt involved “Russia’s most expensive and most ambitious space mission since Soviet times.” The last Soviet interplanetary mission occurred in 1996: a probe to go to Mars “built by the same Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin company” which constructed Phobos-Grunt, said AP. The Mars 96 space probe had plutonium on board.

It also “experienced an engine failure and crashed shortly after its launch,” said AP.  The Mars 96 space probe “crash drew strong international fears because of around 200 grams of plutonium on board. The craft eventually showered its fragments over the Chile-Bolivia border in the Andes Mountains, and the pieces were never recovered.”

The AP article said the “worst ever radiation spill from a derelict space vehicle,” the crash back to Earth in 1978 of the Cosmos 954 satellite that contained a working nuclear reactor. Radioactive debris fell over northwestern Canada.

The worst U.S. accident involving a space device with nuclear materials was the fall from orbit in 1964 of a satellite powered by 2.1 pounds of plutonium. The fiery re-entry resulted in a wide dusting of fine particles of plutonium from its SNAP 9-A nuclear system over the Earth, according to subsequent research. 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. A millionth of a gram of plutonium is a fatal dose.

This mishap was cited in the Final Environmental Impact Statement that NASA prepared for the Curiosity mission as being among the three accidents which have occurred among the 26 U.S. space missions that have used plutonium. In the wake of the SNAP 9-A accident, NASA switched to solar energy on satellites. Now all satellites and the International Space Station are solar powered.

Still, there has continued to be a push through the years for using nuclear power in space with that drive accelerating in recent times. Major U.S. space nuclear power work is now underway at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

“NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center here is expanding the scope of its nuclear technology work,” wrote Frank Morring, Jr. in Aviation Week on November 15.  Marshall has been working “with the Department of Energy on nuclear power technology that might one day power a lunar outpost,” said the article. “That work continues, but it has expanded to encompass another technology goal under the new Obama policy: advanced in-space propulsion.”

The Obama administration is also seeking construction of a facility at Idaho National Laboratory to produce the isotope of plutonium that is used in space nuclear systems, Plutonium-238. It is an “ill-conceived plan” that risks the public’s safety, says James Powell, executive director of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free. The organization has been fighting the opening of the facility.

Because Florida is where the Kennedy Space Center is located, is on the front line for launches in the U.S. space nuclear program. Pax Christi of Tampa Bay and other Florida groups were active in protesting the Curiosity launch. They took to the streets with signs declaring: “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 Curiosity mission said a launch accident releasing plutonium had 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 would take in Orlando.

“Overall” on the Curiosity mission, NASA said the odds were 1-in-220 of plutonium being released. This included in a fall back to Earth, as the Phobos-Grunt space probe suffered.

John Stewart of Pax Christi of Tampa Bay maintained before the Curiosity launch: “NASA is planning a mission that could endanger not only its future but the state of Florida and beyond. The absurd—and maddening—aspect of this risk is that it is unnecessary. 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.”

Beyond the potential price in lives, space nuclear power has a high cost financially. The potential clean-up costs for dispersal of the 10.6 pounds of plutonium on Curiosity would be, said the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the mission, $267 million for each square mile of farmland contaminated, $478 million for each square mile of forests and $1.5 billion for each square mile of “mixed-use urban areas.”  The Curiosity mission itself costs $2.5 billion.

Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, contends: “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.”

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).

More articles by:

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. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

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