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Sci Tech    H4'ed 6/29/15

NASA Studies Nuclear Power in Space and SpaceX Explodes

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"Over the years, inside the DOE labs, hundreds of workers have been contaminated while fabricating space nuclear devices. It is not just some theoretical chance of a space launch accident that we are concerned about. We oppose the entire space nuclear power production process," he said. "It's all dangerous!"

"Just like here on Earth there is a tug-of-war going on between those who wish to promote life-giving solar power and those who want nukes," said Gagnon. "That same battle for nuclear domination is being taken into the heavens by an industry that wants more profit--no matter the consequences. The Global Network will continue to organize around the space nuclear power issue by building a global constituency opposed to the risky and unnecessary nukes in space program." The Global Network is based in Brunswick, Maine.

The new "Nuclear Power Assessment Study" opens by stating: "Human missions to deep-space locations such as extended missions on the lunar and Martian surfaces have always been recognized as requiring some form of nuclear power." As of now, "nuclear power systems are expected to be required well into the 2030s at the least."

It says using actual reactors in space "could potentially enable higher power," but it suggests they be pursued "only if the future need arises and sufficient new funds to develop an FPS [fission power system] flight unit are provided." It goes on, "Perhaps the largest uncertainty is the cost and schedule for developing a compact FPS for space flight. Only one U.S. reactor has been flown--the SNAP-10A reactor" which powered a satellite launched in 1965. That satellite, with its nuclear reactor onboard, remains1,000 miles overhead in what the study calls a "'nuclear-safe' orbit, although debris-shedding events of some level may have occurred."

The study notes that the "United States has spent billions of dollars on space reactor programs, which have resulted in only one flight" and it says "examinations" of the many "terminated" space nuclear power "efforts have revealed that materials issues and technology challenges produced common pitfalls."

Still, the study is high in praise of the U.S. space nuclear power program. "Nuclear systems have enabled tremendous strides in our country's exploration and use of space since 1961." It speaks of nuclear power being used "to support 31 missions that range from navigational, meteorological, communications and experimental satellites."

"The launch and use of space nuclear power systems presents unique safety challenges," it continues. "These safety challenges, or issues, must be recognized and addressed in the design of each space nuclear power system, including consideration of potential accident conditions."

"Launch and safe flight involve risk of failures or accidents" and "the most critical periods include launch, ascent, and orbital or trajectory insertion."

"Three accidents involving U.S. space nuclear power systems have occurred [and] all three involved the launch vehicle or transfer stage, and were unrelated to the power system," the study says. "In each case, the nuclear systems responded as designed and there were no hazardous consequences."

That claim of no hazardous consequences is not true, as the late Dr. John Gofman, professor at the University of California at Berkeley, long maintained. Of the three U.S. space nuclear accidents, the most serious was the fall back to Earth in 1964 of a satellite with a SNAP-

9A plutonium system onboard. The satellite and plutonium system disintegrated in the fall, the plutonium was dispersed worldwide and caused, in Dr. Gofman's estimation, an increase in the global lung cancer rate. Dr. Gofman, an M.D. and Ph.D., co-discoverer of several radioisotopes, and was a pioneer in the earliest experiments with plutonium.

A 10 percent failure rate in space nuclear power missions has also been the case for Russia and, before it, the Soviet Union. The worst Soviet space nuclear accident occurred in the fall in 1978 of Cosmos satellite 954, with an atomic reactor onboard, which disintegrated as it plummeted to Earth, spreading nuclear debris for hundreds of miles across the Northwest Territories of Canada. Despite the study's rosy history of space nuclear power, it also says "it may be prudent to build in more time in the development of schedule for the first launch of a new space reactor. Public interest would likely be large, and it is possible that opposition could be substantial."

The explosion after launch Sunday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a mission to deliver supplies to the International Space Station was an event again underlining the danger of using nuclear power on spacecraft.

Officials were warning people that "potentially hazardous debris could wash ashore." http://www.clickorlando.com/news/officials-warn-of-rocket-debris-from-failed-spacex-launch/33818496 Consider if a radioisotope thermoelectric generator was onboard and plutonium was also dispersed. Consider if there were a nuclear reactor onboard or an atomic propulsion system and an array of radioactive poisons contained in the debris.

U.S. Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland, a member of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee, announced that "the launch failure this morning shows us once again that space is difficult--it requires near perfection."

Inserting nuclear poisons into a danger-prone equation that "requires near perfection"--especially when it is unnecessary--is reckless, the consequences potentially devastating. Estimates in NASA's Final Environmental Impact Statement, for instance, of the cost of plutonium decontamination if there were an accident when the Curiosity rover was launched in 2011 to Mars were put at $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." http://science.nasa.gov/media/medialibrary/2010/11/05/MSL-FEIS_Vol1.pdf It was powered with a plutonium-energized RTG, although previously NASA Mars rovers were able to function well with solar power.

When the Cassini space probe was sent off to Saturn in 1997--with three RTGs containing 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238, the most plutonium ever used on a spacecraft--NASA in its Final Environmental Impact Statement said that if an "inadvertent reentry" of Cassini into the Earth's atmosphere occurred causing it to disintegrate and release its plutonium, "5 billion"of the world's population"could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure." http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/safety/safetyeis/

Noting that "technology frequently goes wrong," Gagnon of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, says: "When you consider adding nuclear power into the mix it becomes an explosive combination. We've long been sounding the alarm that nuclear power in space is not something the public nor the planet can afford to take a chance on."

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Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury and host of the nationally syndicated TV program Enviro Close-Up.
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