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Plutonium, Perseverance and the Spellbound Press

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With all the media hoopla last week about the Perseverance rover, frequently unreported was that its energy source is plutonium -- considered the most lethal of all radioactive substances -- and nowhere in media that NASA projected 1-in-960 odds of the plutonium being released in an accident on the mission.

"A '1-in-960 chance' of a deadly plutonium release is a real concern -- gamblers in Las Vegas would be happy with those odds," says Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.

Indeed, big-money lotteries have odds far higher than 1-in-960 and routinely people win those lotteries.

Further, NASA's Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the $3.7-billion mission acknowledges that an "alternative" power source for Perseverance could have been solar energy. Solar energy using photovoltaic panels has been the power source for a succession of Mars rovers.

For an accident releasing plutonium on the Perseverance launch -- and 1 in 100 rockets undergo major malfunctions on launch mostly by blowing up -- NASA in its SEIS described these impacts for the area around the Cape Kennedy under a heading "Impacts of Radiological Releases on the Environment."

It states: "In addition to the potential human health consequences of launch accidents that could result in a release of plutonium dioxide, environmental impacts could also include contamination of natural vegetation, wetlands, agricultural land, cultural, archaeological and historic sites, urban areas, inland water, and the ocean, as well was impacts on wildlife."

It adds: "In addition to the potential direct costs of radiological surveys, monitoring, and potential cleanup following an accident, there are potential secondary societal costs associated with the decontamination and mitigation activities due to launch area accidents. Those costs may include: temporary or longer term relocation of residents; temporary or longer term loss of employment; destruction or quarantine of agricultural products, including citrus crops; land use restrictions; restrictions or bans on commercial fishing; and public health effects and medical care."

NASA was compelled to make disclosures about the odds of an accident releasing plutonium, alternatives to using nuclear power on the Perseverance and consequences of a plutonium release under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Its SEIS can be viewed online at s.nasa.gov/mars2020/files/mep/Mars2020_Final_EIS.pdf

Meanwhile, the U.S. is now producing large amounts of Plutonium-238, the plutonium isotope used for space missions. The U.S. stopped producing Plutonium-238 in 1988, and it began obtaining it from Russia, but in recent years that has no longer been happening. A series of NASA space shots using Plutonium-238 are planned for coming years.

Plutonium-238 is 280 times more radioactive than Plutonium-239, the plutonium isotope used in atomic bombs and as a "trigger" in hydrogen bombs.

There are 10.6 pounds of Plutonium-238 on Perseverance.

We might have dodged a plutonium bullet on the Perseverance mission. The Atlas V rocket carrying it was launched without blowing up. And the rocket didn't fall back from orbit with Perseverance and its Plutonium-238 disintegrating on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere and plutonium dispersed.

But with NASA planning more space missions involving nuclear power including developing nuclear-powered rockets for trips to Mars and launching rockets carrying nuclear reactors for placement on the Moon and Mars, space-based nuclear Russian roulette is at hand.

The acknowledgement that "an accident resulting in the release of plutonium dioxide from the MMRTG [Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator] occurs with a probability of 1 in 960" is made repeatedly in the SEIS.

The amount of electricity produced by the MMRTG on Perseverance is miniscule -- some 100 watts, similar to a light bulb.

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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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