By Karl Grossman
Despite protests around the world, the Cassini space probeâ€”containing more deadly plutonium than had ever been used on a space deviceâ€”was launched 20 years ago. And this past weekendâ€”on Earth Dayâ€”the probe and its plutonium were sent crashing into Saturn.
The $3.27 billion mission constituted a huge risk. Cassini with its 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238 fuel was launched on a Titan IV rocket on October 17, 1997 despite several Titan IV rockets having earlier blown up on launch.
At a demonstration two weeks before in front of the fence surrounding the pad at Cape Canaveral from which Cassini was to be launched, Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, warned of widespread regional damage if this Titan IV lofting Cassini exploded on launch. Winds could carry the plutonium â€œinto Disney World, University City, into the citrus industry and destroy the economy of central Florida,â€ he declared.
Four months before, at an earlier demonstration at the same site, Â Allan Kohn, a NASA career official from 1964 to 1994 who had been the emergency preparedness officer at the Kennedy Space Center, noted that â€œwe were told by NASA that the odds against the Cassini blowing up and releasing radiation [are] 1,500 to one. These are pretty poor odds. You bet the lottery and the odds against you are one in 14 million.â€ As to NASAâ€™s claim that the plutonium system was â€œindestructible,â€ he said it is â€œindestructible just like the Titanic was unsinkableâ€¦.Itâ€™s time to put a stop to their freedom to threaten the lives of people here on Earth.â€
And, indeed, on an Earth â€œflybyâ€ by Cassini , done on August 18, 1999, it wouldnâ€™t have been a regional disaster but a global catastrophe if an accident happened.
Cassini didnâ€™t have the propulsion power to get directly from Earth to its final destination of Saturn, so NASA figured on having it hurtle back to Earth in a â€œsling shot maneuverâ€ or â€œflybyâ€â€”to use Earthâ€™s gravity to increase its velocity so it could reach Saturn. The plutonium was only used to generate electricityâ€”745 wattsâ€”to run the probeâ€™s instruments. It had nothing to do with propulsion.
So NASA had Cassini come hurtling back at Earth at 42,300 miles per hour and skim over the Earthâ€™s atmosphere at 727 miles high. If there were a rocket misfire or miscalculation and the probe made what NASA in its â€œFinal Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Missionâ€ called an â€œinadvertent reentry,â€ it could have fallen into Earthâ€™s atmosphere, disintegrating, and releasing plutonium. Then, said NASA in its statement, â€œApproximately 7 to 8 billion world population at a time â€¦ could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure.â€
The worst accident involving space nuclear power occurred in 1964 when a satellite powered by a SNAP-9A plutonium system failed to achieve orbit and fell to Earth, breaking apart and releasing its 2.1 pounds of Plutonium-238 fuel, which dispersed all over the planet. According to the late Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, that accident contributed substantially to global lung cancer rates.
In her book, Nuclear Madness, Dr. Helen Caldicott, president emeritus of Physicians for Social Responsibility, writes about plutonium: â€œNamed after the god of the underworld, it is so toxic that less than one-millionth of a gram, an invisible particle, is a carcinogenic dose. One pound, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on Earth.â€
Further, the Plutonium-238 used in space devices is 280 times more radioactive than the Plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons.
Cassini finally reached Saturn and took excellent pictures and provided scientific information about Saturn, its rings, and moons including Enceladus and Titan.
NASA sent it crashing into Saturn on April 22, 2017 â€œto make sure Cassini is incinerated at the end of its journey to ensure that any of its earthborn microbes do not contaminate the biotic or prebiotic worlds out there,â€ wrote Dennis Overbye in his front-page story in The New York Times on April 22. (The article didnâ€™t mention plutonium at all.)
â€œWhen I heard that NASA would be dive-bombing Cassini into Saturn with 72 pounds of deadly plutonium-238 on-board, I thought of the Army handing out smallpox laden blankets to Indians on the reservations,â€ comments Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, which has been in the lead in protesting NASA nuclear space missions. â€œNASA readily admits that â€˜biotic or prebioticâ€™ life very possibly exists on Saturnâ€”are they trying to kill it?â€
Said Gagnon: â€œWe are told that NASA is out searching for the origins of life in the universe but they seem to have forgotten the prime directive from Captain Kirk on Star TrekÂ to â€˜do no harm.â€™â€
Felton Davis, an activist with the Catholic Worker movement in New York City, who participated in anti-Cassini protests through the years, said NASA â€œshould face the environmental reality that other celestial bodies are not garbage dumps.â€
After the 1964 accident involving the SNAP-9A plutonium system, NASA moved to develop solar photovoltaic panels to energize satellites, and now all are powered by solar panelsâ€”as is the International Space Station.
But NASA has insisted that it needs nuclear power for missions into spaceâ€”claiming for years that it could not use anything but atomic energy beyond the orbit of Mars. However, that has been proven incorrect by NASA itself. On July 4th, Independence Day, 2016, NASAâ€™s solar-energized space probe Juno arrived at Jupiter. Launched from Cape Canaveral on August 5, 2011, it flew nearly two billion miles to reach Jupiter, and although sunlight at Jupiter is just four percent of what it is on Earth, Junoâ€™s solar panels were able to harvest energy.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Energy working with NASA has started up a new production facility at its Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to produce Plutonium-238 for space use. Other DOE labs are also to participate.
Says Gagnon of the Maine-based Global Network (www.space4peace.org): â€œVarious DOE labs are rushing back into the plutonium processing business likely to make it possible for the nuclear industry to move their deadly product off-planet in order to ensure that the mining operations envisioned on asteroids, Mars, and the Moon will be fully nuclear-powered. Not only do the DOE labs have a long history of contaminating us on Earth but imagine a series of rocket launches with toxic plutonium on board that blow up from time to time at the Kennedy Space Center.Â They are playing with fire and the lives of us Earthlings. The space and the nuke guys are in bed together and that is a bad combinationâ€”surely terrible news for all of us.â€
â€œThe Global Network,â€ said Gagnon, â€œremains adamantly opposed to the use of nuclear power in space.â€Î¦
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book,Â The Wrong Stuff: The Spaceâ€™s Programâ€™s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet.Â Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).Â He is a contributor toÂ Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. This article first appeared in counterpunch on April 27, 2017.