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The Nuclearization of Space

Photo by Waqas Mustafeez | CC BY 2.0

The website nuclear-news this month has declared: “Nuclear Power and Space Exploration—theme for November 17.” And, indeed, a desire of nuclear power zealots for decades is, now in 2017 with the Trump administration, poised for possible major implementation.

As nuclear-news says: “Coinciding with the severe downturn in the nuclear industry is the rush for enthusiasm for space exploration—and the goal of ‘putting a man on Mars.’ The nuclear industry must be pleased” now with the focus on nuclear-powered rockets to Mars. The  apparent motive?  “Space travel might save their industry?” Continues nuclear-news: “The effects of a space craft crash on an Earth city are almost unimaginable, and certainly never properly condemned by the space technocrats and nuclear enthusiasts. To them, this is an ‘accceptable risk.’”

As Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space  notes: “For many years the nuclear power industry held an annual conference in New Mexico to promote the use of their deadly product in space. Nuclear-powered mining colonies and nuclear-powered rockets to Mars were key themes at these events.”

Now with Trump as president and green lights to industry after industry to do or continue to do deadly things, Trump and his band are pushing for the nuclear industry to bring its deadly product into the heavens.

“Trump’s spaceman,” was the headline in February of a Vice News piece about Trump campaign space advisor Robert Smith Walker, an arch-conservative ex-congressman who had been chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the panel with NASA oversight. The sub-head: “President Trump has a plan for space domination.”

“Trump has appointed former Rep. Thomas Walker as a space science policy advisor, and he has an aggressive, business-type vision for NASA,” it says. “Under Trump, missions are expected to be more deep-space-oriented, beginning with robots mining for resources such as Helium 3 on the Moon. Walker foresees human lunar colonies as well as spaceships fueled by nuclear power to cut travel time to Mars from months to weeks.”

In a Vice News interview, which can be heard online, Walker speaks of mining on the Moon for Helium 3 to be used as a fuel for nuclear fusion and of the U.S. “developing a generation of spaceships powered by nuclear power.”

Originally a high school teacher, Walker left the House in 1997 after 20 years representing a portion of Pennsylvania. He later was named by President George W. Bush’s as chairman of the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry and also was a member of the President’s Commission on Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy. He is executive chairman of the Washington lobbying firm, Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates.

In July, Scientific American published an article headlined: “NASA Seeks Nuclear Power for Mars.” Its sub-head: “After a half-century hiatus, the agency is reviving its reactor development with a test later this summer.”

It starts: “As NASA makes plans to one day send humans to Mars, one of the key technical gaps the agency is working to fill is how to provide enough power on the Red Planet’s surface for fuel production, habitats and other equipment. One option, small nuclear fission reactors, which work by splitting uranium atoms to generate heat, which is then converted into electric power.”

“NASA’s technology development branch has been funding a project called Kilopower for three years, with the aim of demonstrating the system at the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas. Testing is due to start in September and end in January 2018.” (The Nevada National Security Site was previously called the Nevada Test Site and before that Nevada Proving Ground where nuclear weapons tests were conducted.)

The Scientific American piece offers a history of the U.S. developing nuclear power for space use. “The last time NASA tested a fission reactor was during the 1960s’ System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power, or SNAP, program, which developed two types of nuclear power systems. The first system—radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs—tap heat released from the natural decay of a radioactive element, such as plutonium. RTGs have powered dozens of space probes over the years, including the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars. The second technology developed under SNAP was an atom-splitting fission reactor. SNAP-10A was the first—and so far, only—U.S. nuclear power plant to operate in spaee. Launched on April 3, 1965, SNAP-10A operated for 43 days, producing 500 watts of electrical power, before an unrelated equipment failure ended the demonstration. The spacecraft remains in Earth orbit.”

The Scientific American article does not mention a far more serious accident involving a SNAP nuclear device that occurred a year before: the SNAP-9A accident happening in 1964, on April 24. A U.S. satellite using a plutonium-powered SNAP-9A system failed to achieve orbit and fell to Earth, disintegrating upon hitting the atmosphere causing its Plutonium-238 fuel to be dispersed as dust. The late 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 SNAP-9A accident was a key reason for NASA to push for solar power for satellites. Now all satellites launched are energized by solar photovoltaic panels, as is the International Space Station.

As for space probes launched by NASA on which RTGs provided the electricity to power instruments, a break came with the Juno space probe, its electricity also provided by solar panels instead, which on July 4, 2016 arrived at Jupiter—a distance in space that NASA had for decades  insisted only nuclear power could generate the onboard electricity.

Likewise, the Scientific American article did not mention the work through the years by the since disbanded U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, its successor agency the U.S. Department of Energy and the Pentagon on nuclear-powered rockets—none of which ever flew but which underwent years of ground-testing.

But not only has the safe alternative of solar power been developed and used to substitute for nuclear power to produce electricity on space devices, there have been breakthroughs in non-nuclear space propulsion, too. A highly promising technology involves, after launch, the utilization of the ionized particles in the vacuum of space with what are being called solar sails. Several solar sail test flights have been conducted.

Moreover, power on Mars could be generated by solar energy instead of nuclear power, too. As the website Universe Today reported in 2008, “With the help of energy specialists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NASA commissioned a study of how future manned Mars settlements can be powered. Will nuclear generators need to be constructed? Or can solar panels fulfil our proto-colony’s energy needs (regardless of the dust situation)? Interestingly, if positioned in the correct location, solar arrays might function just as well, if not better, than the nuclear options. Solar panels could provide all the energy a fledgling colony needs.”

The nuclear power industry “obviously views space as a new market and one with little opposition because the planetary bodies are ‘far away,’” says Gagnon of the Global Network,  “But the plutonium production process at the Department of Energy’s labs around the country have illustrated their ineptitude over the years. When they were fabricating RTGs for the 1997 Cassini mission to Saturn—involving 72 pounds of Plutonium-238 fuel—they contaminated 244 workers during that production process.”

“Local water sources and air are frequently contaminated by radioactive releases,” he continued. “So it is not just a possible launch accident that we are concerned about—the nuclear industry is killing us right here on Mother Earth as they prepare to go to space.”

Moreover, there has long been an intimate link between the use of nuclear power for civilian and military purposes. President Reagan’s “Star Wars” scheme was based on orbiting “battle platforms” with uranium-fueled nuclear reactors or plutonium-fueled “super” RTGs” to provide the power for hypervelocity guns, particle beams and laser weapons.

And the Trump administration is gearing for greater U.S. military activities in space—with a strong likelihood of, anew, a drive to weaponize space. As Washington-based Roll Call has reported: “Under Trump, GOP to Give Space Weapons Close Look.”  Its article said “Trump’s thinking on missile defense and military space programs have gotten next to no attention, as compared to the president-elect’s other defense proposals….But experts expect such programs to account for a significant share of what is likely to be a defense budget boost, potentially amounting to $500 billion or more in the coming decade.”

“The weapons industry views space as a market as well,” says Gagnon.  He speaks of the proposal that’s been before Congress to create a “U.S. Space Force” as a separate military branch and described it as “driven by the aerospace industry’s huge appetite for endless war—and space offers bountiful opportunities.”

“Over the years we’ve heard the aerospace industry saying that ‘Star Wars’ would be ‘the largest industrial project in the history of our planet.’ And how would they pay for such an expensive endeavor?” he asks. He speaks of reports about aerosopace lobbyists in Washington seeking “the defunding of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and what is left of the welfare program in order to transfer those funds into creating pyramids to the heavens. The weapons industry are the new pharaohs and we, the taxpayers, are to be their slaves.”

An op-ed piece last year in Space News written by Walker and co-authored by Peter Navarro, professor of business at the University of California-Irvine, said the Trump administration will “lead the way on emerging technologies that have the potential to revolutionize warfare…Trump’s priorities for our military space program are clear: We must reduce our current vulnerabilities and assure that our military commands have the space tools they need for their missions.”

More articles by:

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and 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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