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As tragic as it was, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger last year could have been even worse.

The next shuttle, scheduled for launch in May, 1986, would have carried an unmanned spacecraft fueled with 46.7 pounds of toxic plutonium-238.

John Gofman, co-discoverer of uranium-233 and a former associate director of the government’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, said that “If the plutonium (from the scheduled shuttle flight) gets dispersed in fine pieces, the amount of radioactivity released would be more than the combined plutonium radioactivity returned to earth in the. fallout from all the nuclear weapons tests of the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom — which I have calculated has caused 950,000 lung cancer fatalities … It is a crazy idea — unless shuttle launches are 100 percent perfect.”

Dr. Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said that one pound of plutonium, “if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on earth.”

After learning of the plan to launch the plutonium-based reactors, Karl Grossman, an associate professor of journalism at the State University of New York, petitioned the Department of Energy (DOE) for more data under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). After nearly a year of stonewalling, the government finally sent Grossman DOE documents that detailed a launch planned for the spring of 1986 which would “involve a very small risk of releasing plutonium-238 to the environment because of the possibility of malfunction of the space shuttle.” The report, written in 1984, noted the likelihood of a catastrophic accident (such as the one that destroyed the Challenger shuttle in January, 1986) as less than .022 percent. The safety analysis report was prepared by the General Electric Company, the manufacturer of the plutonium generator.

Despite the Challenger explosion, NASA, now thoroughly aware of the global risks involved, plans to go ahead with plutonium-fueled space probes when shuttle missions start again.

The Challenger tragedy was the biggest news story of 1986; unfortunately, the media paid little attention to one of the potentially most significant stories to come out of that accident; fortunately, there is still time for the news media to place this issue on the national agenda.


THE NATION, 2/22/86, “The Lethal Shuttle,” and 3/15/86, “Plutonium Cover-up?;” COMMON CAUSE, July/August, 1986, “Red Tape And Radioactivity;” all by Karl Grossman.