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A Hard Rain Fallin': The Folly of Nuclear Power Overhead

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By Karl Grossman

   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 U.S. plan for national laboratory scientists and the Northrop Grumman Corp. to deploy 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 last month. http://www.secretprojects.co.uk/forum/index.php?topic=14770.0

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." http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/2012/121676p.pdf   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 if through the impact of the drones the radioactive fuels they contained were released.   Or consider if the drones had crashed elsewhere, in Somalia, for instance, providing nuclear material to those whom 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.

These include:

-     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 a radioisotope thermoelectric generator or  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." http://www.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-120209-060.pdf  

-   "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. http://rt.com/news/space-nuclear-engine-propulsion-120/ 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." http://en.rian.ru/russia/20101123/161461317.html   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. http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2012/mar/30/20m-plutonium-project-at-ornl-to-support-space/

-   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.   http://www.voanews.com/english/news/science-technology/Former-Astronaut-Develops-Powerful-Rocket-123960664.html   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. www.space4peace.org   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."

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www.karlgrossman.com
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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