The crash last week of a U.S. drone on the Seychelles Islands—the second crash of a U.S. drone on Seychelles in four months—underlines the deadly folly of a plan of U.S. national laboratory scientists and the Northrop Grumman Corp. for nuclear-powered drones.
The drone that “bounced a few times on the runway” at Seychelles International Airport on April 4 “before ending” up in the sea, according to a statement from the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority, was conventionally powered. So was the drone which had a similar accident on Seychelles in December. From the Indian Ocean island nation the U.S. flies drones over Somalia and over waters off East Africa looking for pirates.
But the use of nuclear power on U.S. drones was “favorably assessed by scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and the Northrop Grumman Corp.,” revealed Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists.
Their report said that “technology and systems designs evaluated…have previously never been applied to unmanned air vehicles” and “use of these technologies” could provide “system performance unparalleled by existing technologies.” It acknowledged, however, that “current political conditions will not allow use of the results.” Thus “it is doubtful that they will be used in the near-term or mid-term future.”
Just consider if the two drones which crashed on the Seychelles used nuclear power—and the impacts if the radioactive fuel they contained was released. Or consider if the drones had crashed elsewhere, in Somalia, for instance, providing nuclear material to those who might want to make a “dirty bomb.” Drones, not too incidentally, have a record of frequently crashing.
The nuclear-powered drone scheme is ostensibly not going anywhere now—because of “current political considerations.” But other schemes to use nuclear power overhead—which also threaten nuclear disaster—are on the planning table and some are moving ahead.
- A new U.S. Air Force plan which supports “nuclear powered flight.” Titled Energy Horizons, issued in January, it states that “nuclear energy has been demonstrated on several satellite systems” and “this source provides consistent power…at a much higher energy and power density than current technologies.” It does admit that “the implementation of such a technology should be weighed heavily against potential catastrophic outcomes.” Indeed, the worst accident involving a U.S. space nuclear system occurred with the fall to Earth in 1964 of a satellite powered by an RTG, the SNAP-9A. It failed to achieve orbit and fell to Earth, disintegrating upon hitting the atmosphere causing its Plutonium-238 fuel to be dispersed as dust widely over the Earth. Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California, Berkeley, long linked the SNAP-9A accident to a global rise in lung cancer. The Air Force report sees nuclear power as an energy source that would assist it in taking the “ultimate high ground” which would provide it with “access to every part of the globe including denied areas.”
- “A ground-breaking Russian nuclear space travel propulsion system will be ready by 2017 and will power a ship capable of long-haul interplanetary missions by 2025,” the Russian state news agency, Ria Novosti, reported last week. The April 3 article, headlined “Plutonium to Pluto: Russian nuclear space travel breakthrough,” said, “The megawatt-class nuclear drive will function for up to three years and produce 100-150 kilowatts of energy at normal capacity.” It is “under development at Skolkovo, Russia’s technology innovation hub, where nuclear cluster head Dennis Kovalevich confirmed the breakthrough.” It said, “Scientists expect to start putting the new engine through its paces in operational tests as early as 2014.” Earlier, Ria Novosti reported that the director of Roscosmos , the Russian space agency, believes the “development of megawatt-class nuclear power systems for manned spacecraft was crucial if Russia wanted to maintain a competitive edge in the space race, including the exploration of the moon and Mars.” It also said the Russian rocket company, Energia, is “ready to design a space-based nuclear power station with a service life of 10-to-15 years, to be initially placed on the moon or Mars.” The worst accident involving a Soviet or Russian nuclear space system was the fall from orbit in 1978 of the Cosmos 954 satellite powered by a nuclear reactor. It also broke up in the atmosphere spreading radioactive debris which scattered over 77,000 square miles of the Northwest Territories of Canada.
- The U.S. is moving again to produce Plutonium-238 for space use. In recent years, the U.S. stopped making Plutonium-238. It is 270 times more radioactive than the more commonly known Plutonium-239, used as fuel in atomic bombs, and thus its manufacture has resulted in significant radioactive pollution. Instead, it obtained Plutonium-238 from Russia. RTGs powered by Plutonium-238 had been used by the U.S. as a source of electricity on satellites—as the Energy Horizons noted. But that was until the SNAP-9A accident which caused a turn to generating electricity with solar photovoltaic panels. Now all satellites are powered by solar
panels, as is the International Space Station. But RTGs using Plutonium-238 have remained a source of on board electricity for space probes such as Cassini which NASA launched to Saturn in 1999. The Department of Energy plans to produce Plutonium-238 at both Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory. “Over the next two years, Oak Ridge National Laboratory will carry out a $20 million pilot project to demonstrate the lab’s ability to produce and process Plutonium-238 for use in the space program,” reported the Knoxville News Sentinel last month.
- The U.S. is also developing nuclear-powered rockets. NASA Director Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and U.S. Marine Corps major general, is a booster of a design of a Houston-based company, Ad Astra, of which another former astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, is president and chief executive officer. “He launched Ad Astra after he retired from NASA in 2005, but the company continues a close association with the U.S. space agency,” the U.S. government’s Voice of America noted in its article on the project last year. The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket or VASMIR could he energized by solar power but, the article relates, “Chang-Diaz says replacing solar panels with a nuclear reactor would provide the necessary power to VASMIR for a much faster trip.” It quotes him as saying “we could do a mission to Mars that would take about 39 days, one way.” And, although “such a mission is still many years away, Chang-Diaz says his rocket could be used much sooner for missions to the International Space Station or to retrieve or position satellites in Earth orbit.”
Challenging what is going on is the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the group, comments:
“Who can deny that the nuclear power industry isn’t working overtime to spread its deadly product onto every possible military application? The recent disclosure that the Pentagon has been strongly considering sticking nuclear engines on-board drones is dangerously ‘more of the same.’”
“Nuclear-powered devices flying around on drones or on-board rockets that frequently blow up on launch is pure insanity,” says Gagnon. “The people need to push back hard.”
What is happening has deep roots. A key rationale by Sandia and Northrop Grumman for nuclear-powered drones was, as the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported last week, long—very long—flight times. “American scientists have drawn up plans for a new generation of nuclear-powered drones capable of flying over remote regions of the world for months on end without refueling,” it reported. The same rationale, noted Gagnon, was behind the U.S. development in the 1940s and 50s of nuclear-propelled bombers.
The strategy was for these nuclear-powered bombers to stay up in the air for extensive periods of time. There would thus be no need to scramble crews and have bombers take off to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union—they’d already be airborne waiting for the command. The Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft or NEPA project was begun in 1946 and involved the conversion of two B-36 bombers for nuclear propulsion. The first operation of an aircraft engine using nuclear power occurred in 1956. The U.S. national laboratories—a string of facilities that got their start in the crash program to build atomic weapons, the Manhattan Project—were integral to the scheme. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, then run by the since disbanded U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, did much of the research work. Much of the testing was done at what is now Idaho National Laboratory where today two nuclear aircraft engines are on public display and there is also still remaining a gargantuan hangar built for nuclear aircraft. General Electric was a major contractor.
The plan for nuclear-powered bombers was finally scuttled because of the problem of providing heavy lead shielding to protect the crew from radiation and, as then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Congress in 1961, an atomic airplane would “expel some fraction of radioactive fission products into the atmosphere, creating an important public relations problem if not an actual physical hazard.”
A subsequent program linking nuclear power and weapons was the Star Wars program under President Ronald Reagan. It was “predicated,” as Gagnon notes, “on nuclear power in space.” Reactors and also a “Super RTG” to be built by General Electric were to provide the energy on orbiting battle platforms for lasers, hypervelocity guns and particle beam weapons.
In my book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet,” and TV documentary, Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens, I noted the 1988 declaration of Lt. General James Abramson, first head of the Strategic Defense Initiative, that “without reactors in orbit [there is] going to be a long, long light cord that goes down to the surface of Earth” bringing up power. He stated: “Failure to develop nuclear power in space could cripple efforts to deploy anti-missile sensors and weapons in orbit.”
As to nuclear-propelled rockets, the U.S. has a long history of seeking to build them from the 1950s onward. There was a program called Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application or NERVA followed by Projects Pluto, Rover and Poodle. And in the 1980s, the Timberwind nuclear-powered rocket was developed to loft heavy Star Wars equipment into space and also for trips to Mars. Most recently, the Project Prometheus program to build nuclear-powered rockets was begun by NASA in 2003. Through the years there have been major concerns over a nuclear rocket blowing up on launch or crashing back to Earth.
The Soviet Union, Russia, conducted a parallel space nuclear program—including nuclear-powered satellites, development of a nuclear bomber and nuclear-powered rockets.
Now, meanwhile, nuclear power above our heads has been shown as unnecessary.
NASA has persisted in using Plutonium-238-powered RTGs on space probes claiming there was no choice. But last year it launched the Juno space probe which is now on its way to Jupiter—getting all its on-board electricity only from solar photovoltaic panels. It’s to arrive in 2016 and make 32 orbits around Jupiter and perform a variety of scientific missions. As NASA stated last week on its website for Juno: “As of April 4, Juno was approximately209 million miles from Earth…The Juno spacecraft is in excellent health.” This is despite NASA claiming for decades that only nuclear power could provide on-board power in deep space.
Likewise, the European Space Agency in 2004 launched a space probe it calls Rosetta, also using solar energy rather than nuclear power for on-board electricity. It is to rendezvous in 2014 with a comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and send out a lander which will investigate the comet’s surface. At that point it will be 500 million miles from the Sun, a small ball in the sky at that distance, yet Rosetta will still be harvesting solar energy.
As to propulsion in space, a highly promising energy source are the ionized particles in space that can be utilized in the frictionless environment with what are being called solar sails.
In May 2010, the Japan Exploration Agency launched an experimental spacecraft, Ikaros, that seven months later reached Venus—propelled only by its solar sail. The Planetary Society is readying a similar mission using a spacecraft named LightSail-1 powered by solar sails and planning for two more ambitious solar sail flights of LightSail-2 and LightSail-3.
These missions do not present threats to life on Earth—as does the use of nuclear power overhead. And the threats of nuclear power overhead can be enormous. For example, consider the projection in NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission about the impacts if there were an “inadvertent reentry” of Cassini into Earth’s atmosphere during one of its two “flybys”—whips around the Earth but a few hundred miles high to increase its velocity so it could get to Saturn. If it fell to Earth, broke up in the atmosphere and its 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238 were released, “5 billion…of the world population…could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure,” projected NASA.
Moreover, the production of nuclear fuel on Earth for use in space—or in the atmosphere for drones—constitutes danger, too. Facilities that had been used earlier by the U.S. to produce Plutonium-238, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Mound Laboratory, ended up as hotspots for worker contamination and radioactive pollution.
James Powell, executive director of the organization Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, which has been opposing the restart of Plutonium-238 production at nearby Idaho National Laboratory, comments: “Aside from the looming danger of nuclear powered crafts above Earth, we should also realize that the nuclear material is to be produced in our backyards with 1960’s era nuclear reactors and then transported back and forth from [Oak Ridge National Laboratory in]Tennessee to Idaho. Every single part of this process deeply concerns us.”
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). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.