Despite scientific warnings of a possible disaster, NASA is pursuing plans to launch the Project Galileo shuttle space probe which will carry enough plutonium to kill every person on earth.
Theoretically, one pound of plutonium, uniformly distributed, has the potential to give everyone on the planet a fatal case of lung cancer. Galileo will have 49.25 pounds of plutonium on board, most of it plutonium 238, a radioisotope 300 times more radioactive than the one used as fuel for atomic bombs.
Critics of the plan, such as Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York claim that putting Galileo’s plutonium payload into space is both risky and unnecessary.
The plutonium will be used to fuel “radioisotope thermoelectric generators” which keep instrumentation warm. Although NASA and the DOE say there are no alternatives, professor Kaku asserts that the latest advances in solar cells make it possible to generate solar electricity even as far away as Jupiter, Galileo’s destination.
NASA downplays the possibility of the release of plutonium in an accident, stressing that the substance will be encapsulated in “clads” made from iridium alloy in a graphite shell. The DOE contends that clads can withstand explosive pressures up to 2,200 pounds per square inch. However, a DOE safety analysis report on the Galileo mission obtained under FOIA states that from the viewpoint of potential nuclear fuel release, the most critical accidents would occur on the launch pad. Launch pad accident scenarios, such as “tipovers” and “pushovers” are estimated to generate explosive pressures as high as 19,600 psi.
Once in space, Galileo is still potentially dangerous. Since the solid-fuel rocket substituted for the highly volatile liquid-fuel Centaur rocket used in the Challenger does not have the power of the Centaur, NASA devised a plan to use the earth’s gravitational pull to increase the rocket’s momentum sufficiently to reach Jupiter. During the “flyby” orbits around the earth, Galileo would at times be only 277 miles overhead. A 1987 NASA report estimates the chance of Galileo inadvertently reentering the earth’s atmosphere to be less than one in a million, and, as such, an accident scenario is deemed not credible.
NASA set the probability figures for the chance of a shuttle accident at one in 100,000 for the Challenger. Investigation following the crash put the figure at closer to one in 25.
While “The Lethal Shuttle: Plutonium Payload Scheduled” was one of the top 10 overlooked stories cited by Project Censored in 1986, the continued failure of the media to draw attention to the potential risk of Project Galileo fully warrants its renomination for 1987.
THE NATION, 1/23/88, “The Space Probe’s Lethal Cargo,” by Karl Grossman;, pp 1, 78; L.A. TIMES, 2/6/86.