NASA's warning - SpaceX crash highlights dangers of nuclear power in space

Just don't bring a nuclear power plant! Mission to Mars as envisioned by Pat Rawlings in 1985 for NASA. Image: Pat Rawlings / NASA.
Just don't bring a nuclear power plant! Mission to Mars as envisioned by Pat Rawlings in 1985 for NASA. Image: Pat Rawlings / NASA.
Sunday's SpaceX crash sends a powerful warning of the dangers of nuclear power on spacecraft, writes Karl Grossman. But will NASA listen? Despite the success of solar-powered missions, it's planning to use plutonium to power future missions and a new report asserts a continuing need for the technology - even as Russia ditches the idea.
What if a radioisotope thermoelectric generator was onboard and plutonium was dispersed? Or a nuclear reactor or atomic propulsion system, and an array of radioactive poisons rained down in the debris?

A month ago NASA released a study claiming there is a need for continued use of plutonium-energized power systems for future space flights. It also says the use of actual nuclear reactors in space "has promise" but "currently" there is no need for them. 

The space plutonium systems - called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGS) - use the heat from the decay of plutonium to generate electricity in contrast to nuclear reactors, usually using uranium, in which fission or atom-splitting takes place.

But following the Spacex rocket crash last Sunday, it looks like astonishingly bad timing. The accident was plenty bad enough as it was, without having plutonium on board that could cause widespread radioactive contamination if released.

The 'Nuclear Power Assessment Study - Final Report' also comes as major breakthroughs have been happening in the use of solar and other benign sources of power in space. The situation parallels that on Earth as solar and wind power and other clean, safe technologies compete with nuclear, oil, coal and other problematic energy sources and the interests behind them.

Examples of the use of benign power in space include the successful flight in May of a solar-powered spacecraft named LightSail in a mission funded by members of the Planetary Society.

Astronomer Carl Sagan, a founder of the society, was among those who have postulating having a spacecraft with a sail propelled through the vacuum of space by the pressure of photons emitted by the sun. LightSail demonstrates his vision.

NASA - gazing to the stars? Or head in the sand?

Yet, meanwhile, NASA cancelled its own solar sail mission scheduled for this year. It was to involve the largest solar sail ever flown. In 2010, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency made the first solar sail flight with a spacecraft it named Ikaros. Before the NASA solar flight cancellation, NASA last year declared on its website:

"The concept of a huge, ultra-thin sail unfurling in space, using the pressure of sunlight to provide propellant-free transport, hovering and exploration capabilities, may seem like the stuff of science fiction. Now a NASA team developing the ‘In-Space Demonstration of a Mission-Capable Solar Sail'-or Solar Sail Demonstrator for short-intend[s] to prove the viability and value of the technology in the years to come."

NASA said the mission, also called Sunjammer, was cancelled by NASA because of problems with the project's contractor, L'Garde of California.

Also demonstrating that solar power can be harvested far out in space, the Rosetta space probe of the European Space Agency (ESA), energized with solar power, made a successful rendez-vous last year with a comet 375 million miles from the sun.

What if a radioisotope thermoelectric generator was onboard and plutonium was dispersed? Or a nuclear reactor or atomic propulsion system, and an array of radioactive poisons rained down in the debris?

At the start of this mission ESA explained that it did not have the plutonium power systems that NASA had, so instead it developed high-efficiency solar photovoltaic panels for use in space. And they worked - enabling Rosetta to meet up with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and send a lander to its surface. Rosetta continues flying alongside the comet.

NASA, too, has a space probe energized with high-efficiency solar photovoltaic panels it developed now on its way to Jupiter in a mission it has named Juno. For decades, NASA insisted that solar power could not be harvested beyond the orbit of Mars and thus plutonium power systems were necessary.

This was NASA's central argument in federal court in 1989 to rebut opponents of its plutonium-energized Galileo mission to Jupiter. Now it has shown it was mistaken. Juno using solar power instead of plutonium RTGs is to reach Jupiter next year.

NASA's choice for Mars mission? Plutonium

Russia is abandoning its development of nuclear-propelled rockets for missions to Mars, as TASS reported in April: "Russia's space agency Roscosmos is planning to shut down works on developing a megawatt-class nuclear propulsion system for long-range manned spacecraft."

But NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and Marine Corps major general, remains a big booster of using nuclear-propelled rockets to get to Mars. According to NASA's website, a nuclear-powered rocket "could propel human explorers to Mars more efficiently than conventional spacecraft."

Through the years, NASA has worked closely with the US Atomic Energy Commission and, after the commission was disbanded, its successor, the Department of Energy, on space nuclear programs. There's also a program at DOE's Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop a "robust fission reactor prototype that could be used as a power system for space travel."

The DOE has resumed production for NASA of plutonium 238 -  the isotope used in RTGs which is 280 times more radioactive than the plutonium 239 used as a fuel in nuclear bombs and reactors. And as the journal Nature reported,

"NASA will be relieved to get this 238 Pu [Plutonium] because it is increasingly anxious about running out. The isotosope is not found in nature, so it has to be made in nuclear reactors ... NASA now has just 35 kilograms of plutonium product - a small supply that may not match the demands to send missions to Mars, the moons of Jupiter and beyond."

A valuable market for the nuclear industry

The news was greeted with dismay by Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. "We've known for years that the nuclear industry has taken control of the seats at the NASA and DOE planning committees that decide whether solar or nuclear power should be used on space missions", he said.

"The nuclear industry views space as a new market for their deadly product. Nuclear generators on space missions, nuclear powered mining colonies on Mars and other planetary bodies and even nuclear reactors on rockets to Mars are being sought. Thus there are many opportunities for things to go wrong."

"Over the years, inside the DOE labs, hundreds of workers have been contaminated while fabricating space nuclear devices. It is not just some theoretical chance of a space launch accident that we are concerned about. We oppose the entire space nuclear power production process! It's all dangerous!

"Just like here on Earth there is a tug-of-war going on between those who wish to promote life-giving solar power and those who want nukes. That same battle for nuclear domination is being taken into the heavens by an industry that wants more profit-no matter the consequences.

"The Global Network will continue to organize around the space nuclear power issue by building a global constituency opposed to the risky and unnecessary nukes in space program."

Replete with unsupported assertions

The new 'Nuclear Power Assessment Study' opens by stating: "Human missions to deep-space locations such as extended missions on the lunar and Martian surfaces have always been recognized as requiring some form of nuclear power." As of now, "nuclear power systems are expected to be required well into the 2030s at the least."

It says using actual reactors in space "could potentially enable higher power", but it suggests they be pursued "only if the future need arises and sufficient new funds to develop an FPS [fission power system] flight unit are provided ...

"Perhaps the largest uncertainty is the cost and schedule for developing a compact FPS for space flight. Only one U.S. reactor has been flown - the SNAP-10A reactor" which powered a satellite launched in 1965. That satellite, with its nuclear reactor onboard, remains1,000 miles overhead in what the study calls a "‘nuclear-safe' orbit, although debris-shedding events of some level may have occurred."

The study notes that the "United States has spent billions of dollars on space reactor programs, which have resulted in only one flight" and that examinations of the many terminated space nuclear power efforts "have revealed that materials issues and technology challenges produced common pitfalls."

Yet the study is fulsome in its praise of the US space nuclear power program. "Nuclear systems have enabled tremendous strides in our country's exploration and use of space since 1961", it claims. It speaks of nuclear power being used "to support 31 missions that range from navigational, meteorological, communications and experimental satellites."

"The launch and use of space nuclear power systems presents unique safety challenges. These safety challenges, or issues, must be recognized and addressed in the design of each space nuclear power system, including consideration of potential accident conditions", noting that "the most critical periods include launch, ascent, and orbital or trajectory insertion.

"Three accidents involving U.S. space nuclear power systems have occurred [and] all three involved the launch vehicle or transfer stage, and were unrelated to the power system. In each case, the nuclear systems responded as designed and there were no hazardous consequences."

Well, almost no hazardous consequences ...

That claim of no hazardous consequences is not true, as the late Dr. John Gofman, professor at the University of California at Berkeley, long maintained. Of the three US space nuclear accidents, the most serious was the fall back to Earth in 1964 of a satellite with a SNAP-9A plutonium system onboard.

The satellite and plutonium system disintegrated in the fall, the plutonium was dispersed worldwide and caused, in Dr. Gofman's estimation, an increase in the global lung cancer rate. Dr. Gofman, an M.D. and Ph.D., co-discoverer of several radioisotopes, and was a pioneer in the earliest experiments with plutonium.

A 10% failure rate in space nuclear power missions has also been the case for Russia and, before it, the Soviet Union. The worst Soviet space nuclear accident occurred in the fall in 1978 of Cosmos satellite 954, with an atomic reactor onboard, which disintegrated as it plummeted to Earth, spreading nuclear debris for hundreds of miles across the Northwest Territories of Canada.

Despite the study's rosy history of space nuclear power, it also says "it may be prudent to build in more time in the development of schedule for the first launch of a new space reactor. Public interest would likely be large, and it is possible that opposition could be substantial."

The explosion after launch Sunday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a mission to deliver supplies to the International Space Station was an event again underlining the danger of using nuclear power on spacecraft. Officials were warning that "potentially hazardous debris could wash ashore."

What if a radioisotope thermoelectric generator was onboard and plutonium was also dispersed? Or a nuclear reactor or atomic propulsion system, and an array of radioactive poisons rained down in the debris.

US Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland, a member of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee, announced that "the launch failure this morning shows us once again that space is difficult - it requires near perfection."

Inserting nuclear poisons into a danger-prone equation that "requires near perfection" - especially when it is unnecessary - is reckless, and the consequences are potentially devastating.

Estimates in NASA's Final Environmental Impact Statement, for instance, of the cost of plutonium decontamination if there were an accident when the Curiosity rover was launched in 2011 to Mars were put at $267 million for each square mile of farmland, $478 million for each square mile of forests and $1.5 billion for each square mile of "mixed-use urban areas". It was powered with a plutonium-energized RTG, although previously NASA Mars rovers were able to function well with solar power.

When the Cassini space probe was sent off to Saturn in 1997 - with three RTGs containing 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238, the most plutonium ever used on a spacecraft - NASA in its Final Environmental Impact Statement said that if an "inadvertent reentry" of Cassini into the Earth's atmosphere occurred causing it to disintegrate and release its plutonium, "5 billion...of the world's population...could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure."

Noting that "technology frequently goes wrong", Gagnon of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, says:

"When you consider adding nuclear power into the mix it becomes an explosive combination. We've long been sounding the alarm that nuclear power in space is something the neither public nor the planet can afford to take a chance on."



Karl Grossman is professor of journalism at the State University of New York / College at Old Westbury, and the author of 'Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power' and host of the nationally-aired TV program 'EnviroCloseup'.

If you like the image, see more vintage NASA illustrations on Mashable.

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