1. Risking the World: Nuclear Proliferation In Space

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Sources: COVERTACTION QUARTERLY, Date: Summer 1996, Title: “Risking the World: Nuclear Proliferation in Space,” * Author: Karl Grossman; PROGRESSIVE MEDIA PROJECT, Date: May 1996, Title: “Don’t Send Plutonium into Space,” Author: Karl Grossman

There has been little press coverage through the years on the use of nuclear power in space and 1996 was no exception—despite the fact that in 1997, the U.S. intends to launch a space probe carrying the most plutonium ever used on a space device.

In October, NASA plans to launch the Cassini probe with 72.3 pounds of plutonium. The probe is to be sent up on a Lockheed Martin-built Titan IV rocket despite there having been a number of accidents involving Titan rockets, including a 1993 explosion soon after launch which destroyed a 81 billion spy satellite system and sent its fragments falling into the Pacific Ocean.

Further, the Cassini does not have the propulsion power to get directly to its final destination, Saturn, so NASA plans a “slingshot maneuver” in which the probe will circle Venus twice and then hurtle back at Earth. It will then buzz the Earth in August 1999 at 42,300 miles per hour just 312 miles above the surface. After whipping around the Earth and using its gravity, Cassini will have the velocity to reach Saturn.

The problem occurs if the probe enters the Earth’s atmosphere during the “flyby.” If Cassini comes in too close, it could burn up in the atmosphere and disperse deadly plutonium across the planet. According to NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission, if in the “flyby,” an “inadvertent reentry occurred, approximately 5 billion of the estimated world population at the time … could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure.”

According to author Karl Grossman, the plutonium is not a necessity for the Cassini mission to succeed. The plutonium is to be used to generate 745 watts of electricity to run instruments—a task that could be accomplished with solar energy. Indeed, an official of the European Space Agency (ESA) has said that her agency could have high-efficiency solar cells it has newly developed ready in five years to power a mission to Saturn. But still, NASA, the Department of Energy’s national nuclear laboratories, and the corporations which have been involved in producing nuclear hardware for space missions insist on sticking with the nuclear energy on the Cassini.

Grossman’s reporting in earlier space missions in which nuclear power was used—Galilieo with 49.25 pounds of plutonium and Ulysses with 25 pounds of plutonium in 1990—made the Project Censored list of under-reported stories in 1986, 1987, and 1989.

SSU Censored Researchers: Brant Herman, Eric Woodward

COMMENTS: The lack of media attention given to the use of nuclear power in space “appears chronic,” says writer Karl Grossman. “The cover-up continues in the 1990s while even bigger and yet more dangerous nuclear space shots are planned.”

The issue, Grossman stresses, is one of the peoples’ right to know and then the decision on whether to put life on Earth at such an enormous risk could be made collectively. “If the information was out there, an informed decision could be made by those who might be impacted which is all of us-as to whether to go ahead with this program,” says Grossman.

“People should be aware,” he says, “that the planned launch of the Cassini space probe uses a rocket with a history of exploding on launch. They should be aware that it will have onboard more plutonium than ever used on a space device. They should know that by NASA’s own admission, an accident during the `flyby’ return towards Earth could expose billions of people to radiation. They should know that the history of nuclear power in space has been fraught with accidents-that some 15 percent of U.S. and Soviet missions have undergone mishaps including the fall back to Earth of the SNAP-9A nuclear satellite system in 1994 that broke up in the atmosphere dispersing 2.1 pounds of plutonium widely over the planet, an accident that has been linked to an increased level of lung cancer on Earth. They should be aware that a solar photovoltaic energy system could substitute for a nuclear system on the Cassini mission that, indeed, the SNAP-9A accident was a spur to NASA to pioneer solar photovoltaic energy for satellites. They should understand,” says Grossman, “that the Cassini mission is one among many space projects involving nuclear space power now being planned. They should know that the use of nuclear power in space connects to a desire by the U.S. military to attain what one recent Air Force report describes as `the ultimate high ground’-space-and using in the process nuclear power for propulsion and as a power source for weaponry.”

Grossman believes that the limited media coverage benefits NASA and the Pentagon, as well as the string of U.S. Department of Energy national nuclear laboratories and companies like Lockheed Martin, which are involved in the design, development, and manufacture of nuclear space hardware.

A professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, Grossman became a journalist as a result of an internship at The Cleveland Press as a college student in 1960. He remarks, “The story might be corny, but over the entrance of The Cleveland Press was the motto of the Scripps-Howard newspapers: `Give light and the people will find their way.’ The continuing cover-up of the use of nuclear power in space is a classic example of people not being given the light so they won’t be able to find their own way. Apparently, we are supposed to leave these life-and-death decisions in the hands of an elite band of ‘experts.’

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that what goes up sometimes comes down—and sometimes on peoples’ heads. Moreover, the situation is not one of ‘if,”’ stresses Grossman. The fiery November 16, 1996 crash to Earth of the Russian Mars 96 space probe with almost a half-pound of plutonium on board was, he says, “another example of how these accidents happen. Interestingly enough, there was a brief period of media attention when it looked like the probe was to fall near Australia; President Clinton called Australian Prime Minister Howard offering U.S. ‘assets’ to try to deal with any radioactive contamination. But virtually all the media instantly left the story when it turned out that, in fact, the probe and its plutonium came down as a fireball on Chile and Bolivia. Here was a case in which, as the headline of an upcoming article I wrote for Extra! Update, a publication of the organization Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, states: ‘Racism Meets Spacism.”’