6. Russian Plutonium Lost Over Chile and Bolivia

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Source: COVERTACTION QUARTERLY (CAQ), Title: “Space Probe Explodes, Plutonium Missing,” Date: Spring 1997, Author. Karl Grossman

SSU Censored Researchers: Robin Stovall and Kecia Kaiser
SSU Faculty Evaluator. Catherine Nelson, Ph.D.

On November 16, 1996, Russia’s Mars 96 space probe broke up and burned while descending over Chile and Bolivia, scattering its remains across a 10,000 square-mile area. The probe carried about a half pound of deadly plutonium divided into four battery canisters. However, no one seems to know where the canisters went. Gordon Bendick, Director of Legislative Affairs for the National Security Council, states there are two possibilities. Either the “…canisters were destroyed coming through the atmosphere [and the plutonium dispersed], or the canisters survived re-entry, impacted the earth, and … penetrated the surface …or could have hit a rock and bounced off like an agate marble.”

This amount of plutonium has the potential to cause devastating damage. According to Dr. Helen Caldicott, president emeritus of Physicians for Social Responsibility, “Plutonium is so toxic that less that one millionth of a gram is a carcinogenic dose. One pound, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on earth.” Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of California, Berkeley, confirms the increased hazard of lung cancer that would occur if the probe burned up and formed plutonium oxide particles.

On November 17, when the U.S. Space Command announced the probe would re-enter the earth’s atmosphere with a predicted impact point in East Central Australia, President Clinton telephoned the Australian Prime Minister John Howard and offered “the assets the U.S. has in the Department of Energy,” to deal with any radioactive contamination. Howard placed the Australian military and government on full alert and warned the public to use “extreme caution” if they came in contact with the remnants of the Russian space probe.

In the first of a series of blunders, the day after the space probe had fallen on South America, the Space Command remained focused on Australia. Later they reported the probe had fallen in the Pacific, just west of South America. A Russian news source put the site in a different patch of the Pacific altogether. Major media in the United States reported the probe as having crashed “harmlessly” into the ocean. On November 18, 1996, the Washington Post ran the headline: “Errant Russian Spacecraft Crashes Harmlessly After Scaring Australia.”

On November 29, U.S. Space Command completely revised its account. It changed not only where, but also when the probe fell. The final report placed the crash site not west of South America, but directly on Chile and Bolivia. The date of the crash was also revised from November 17 to November 16, the night before. Apparently, U.S. Space Command had initially tracked the booster stage of the Russian craft, and not the actual probe itself.

Yet once the U.S. had determined the plutonium might have landed on South America it did nothing to help locate and recover the radioactive canisters. “You can clearly see the double standard,” charged Houston aerospace engineer James Oberg. “Australia got a phone call from the President, and Chile got a two week-old fax from somebody.” Many attribute this double standard to racism.

The New York Times mentioned the incident on page 7 under “World Briefs” on December 14,1996. The Russian government has been uncooperative, still refusing to give Chile a description of the canisters to aid in retrieval efforts.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR KARL GROSSMAN: “The fall on Chile and Bolivia of the Russian Mars 96 space probe carrying a half-pound of plutonium is important because it again reflects how accidents involving nuclear-fueled space devices can and do happen. Indeed, this was the sixth of the 41 known Soviet/Russian nuclear space shots that has met with an accident. (The U.S. also has a 12 percent failure rate—with three out of its 27 nuclear space shots meeting with accidents. The worst of these was the 1964 disintegration upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere of the SNAP-9A plutonium system, which dispersed 2.1 pounds of plutonium widely over the planet.) In the case of the Russian Mars 96 space probe, eyewitnesses saw the probe in a fiery descent, apparently breaking up in the sky. Did the plutonium aboard the Russian Mars 96 space probe disperse? If so, what was the extent of the contamination and what are the impacts on health? We don’t know the answer to those questions. More than a year later, there is still very little information about the incident.

“The mainstream press, from the time it was announced that the probe fell on South America—and not, as originally predicted by the U.S. Space Command, on Australia—has given scant attention to the accident. As Manuel Baquedano, director of the Institute for Ecological Policy in Chile, asked, ‘Are the lives of Australians worth more than the lives of Chileans?’ The U.S. has done virtually nothing for Chile and Bolivia in dealing with the accident despite repeated requests. Getting information on the story remains a struggle. I made numerous telephone calls to officials in the U.S. and in Latin America and have gotten precious little information.”