Applause for Perseverance ignores the plutonium bullet we dodged – FAIR
With all the hype from the past week about the often unreported Perseverance rover, its power source is plutonium – considered the deadliest of all radioactive substances – and nowhere in the media is the NASA showing. that there was a 1 in 960 chance of an accidental release of plutonium during the mission.
“A ‘one in 960’ chance of a lethal release of plutonium is a real concern,” said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.
Additionally, NASA’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the $ 3.7 billion mission recognizes that solar power could have been an “alternative” energy source for Perseverance. Photovoltaic panels have been the source of energy for a succession of Martian rovers.
One in 100 rockets suffer major malfunctions at launch, mainly by exploding. NASA in its SEIS (visible online) describes the potential impact of an accidental release of plutonium during the launch of Perseverance on July 30, 2020 on the area around Cape Canaveral under the title “Impacts of radiological releases on the environment:
In addition to the potential human health consequences of launch accidents that could result in a release of plutonium dioxide, environmental impacts could also include contamination of natural vegetation, wetlands, agricultural lands, cultural, archaeological and historical sites. , urban areas, inland waters and ocean, as well as impacts on wildlife.
In addition to the potential direct costs of radiological investigations, surveillance and potential clean-up following an accident, there are potential secondary societal costs associated with decontamination and mitigation activities due to launch area accidents. . These costs may include: temporary or longer-term relocation of residents; temporary or longer term job loss; destruction or quarantine of agricultural products, including citrus crops; land use restrictions; restrictions or prohibitions on commercial fishing; and the effects on public health and medical care.
NASA was required to disclose the estimated probabilities of an accident, the consequences of a plutonium release, and alternatives to the use of nuclear power under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Meanwhile, the United States is now producing large amounts of plutonium-238, the isotope of plutonium used for space missions. The United States stopped producing plutonium-238 in 1988 and began sourcing it from Russia, a trade that has been halted in recent years. A series of NASA space plans using plutonium-238 are planned for the coming years.
Plutonium-238 is 280 times more radioactive as plutonium-239, the isotope used in atomic bombs and as a “trigger” in hydrogen bombs. There are 10.6 pounds of plutonium-238 on Perseverance.
We dodged a plutonium bullet during the Perseverance mission. The Atlas V rocket carrying it was launched without exploding. And the rocket did not fall from its orbit, Perseverance disintegrating upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and dispersing its plutonium.
But with NASA planning more space missions involving nuclear power, including the development of nuclear-powered rockets for travel to Mars and the launch of rockets carrying nuclear reactors for placement on the Moon and Mars, the nuclear roulette wheel Russian based in space is at your fingertips.
The recognition that “an accident resulting in the release of plutonium dioxide from the MMRTG [Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator] occurs with a probability of 1 in 960 ”is done repeatedly in the SEIS.
The amount of electricity produced by Perseverance’s plutonium generator is tiny – around 100 watts, similar to a light bulb.
A solar alternative to the use of plutonium on the mission is discussed at the start of the SEIS, in a section “Description and comparison of alternatives”. The first is ‘Alternative 1’, the option adopted, using a plutonium-powered generator “to continuously supply heat and electrical power to the rover’s battery so that the rover can operate and carry out work. scientists on the surface of the planet. “
Next comes “Alternative 2”, which states:
As part of this alternative, NASA would halt preparations for the proposed action (Alternative 1) and implement a different power system for the Mars rover. The rover would use solar power to run instead of an MMRTG.
The worst American accident involving the use of nuclear power in space occurred in 1964, when the American Transit 5BN-3 satellite, powered by a SNAP-9A plutonium-powered radioisotope thermoelectric generator, failed managed to reach orbit and fell from the sky. It shattered while burning in the atmosphere. “A worldwide soil sampling program carried out in 1970 showed that SNAP 9-A debris was present on all continents and in all latitudes,” according to a 1990 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Swedish National Institute for Radiation Protection; the level of plutonium-238 in the earth’s environment has tripled (LA Times, 07/25/88).
After the SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) accident, NASA became a pioneer in the development of solar photovoltaic energy. All US satellites are now powered by solar energy, as is the International Space Station.
The worst accident involving nuclear power in space in the Soviet / Russian space program occurred in 1978, when the Cosmos 954 satellite with a nuclear reactor on board fell from orbit and spread radioactive debris over a 373 mile strip from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake in Canada. There were 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium fuel on board.
I started writing extensively about the use of nuclear power in space 35 years ago, when I told the story in The nation magazine (02/22/86) on how the next mission of the unfortunate Challenger the space shuttle, which exploded on Jan. 28, 1986, was to lift the Ulysses space probe, designed to orbit the Sun, powered by 24.2 pounds of plutonium-238.
If the Challenger had exploded during this mission, scheduled for May 1986, and released the plutonium of Ulysses, there would not have been the death of six astronauts and teacher in space Christa McAuliffe, but many other people.
Chasing the problem, I wrote the books The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet and Weapons in space. I wrote and presented the television documentary Nuclear Weapons in Space: Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Skies and other television programs. And I wrote several hundred articles.
The lack of media coverage of the nuclear dangers of the Perseverance Mars rover is nothing new. In Bad things, I am including a section on “The Space Con Job”.
I quote extensively from an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review (7–8 / 86) after Challenger accident of William Boot, the magazine’s former editor, headline “NASA and the Spellbound Press”. He wrote:
Dazzled by the image of the space agency’s technological genius, space reporters spared an in-depth NASA scrutiny that could have improved the odds of averting a tragedy – thanks to hard-hitting investigations drawing congressional wandering attention to the issue of shuttle safety.
He found “credulity” in the press. “The press,” he writes, is “infatuated with man’s adventures in space” and “American journalists have long had a love affair with the space program”:
Many space reporters seemed to see themselves as participants, along with NASA, in a great cosmic quest. NASA press conference transcripts reveal that it was not unusual for journalists to use the first person plural. (‘When are we going to launch?)
In Bad things, I also wrote about a talk on “Science and the Media” by New York Times space reporter John Noble Wilford in 1990 at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Wilford said: “I am particularly intrigued by science and scientists…. My favorite subject is planetary science. After his speech, I interviewed him and he admitted that “there are still a lot of space reporters who are groupies”. Yet, he continued, “some of the things NASA does are so great, so wonderful, so it’s easy to forget to be critical.”
At NBCof Today (02/18/21), the reporters’ attitude on the morning of the Perseverance landing was as festive as the label of the video broadcast: “Jubilation at the control of NASA”. There was never any question of nuclear energy or plutonium, nor of the proven risks of accidental dispersion.
Bruce Gagnon, Global Network, commented:
I am disheartened that the media is reluctant to mention the words “plutonium” or “accidental release probabilities” in their so-called report on the rover’s arrival on Mars. You must be wondering who they are working for.
We hear the excited anticipation of the nuclear industry every day as stories reveal the growing plans for hosts of nuclear device launches – more rovers to Mars, mining colonies on the Moon, even nuclear reactors for to launch rockets bound for Mars. The nuclear industry rolls the dice as the people of Earth cross their fingers in the hope that the technology doesn’t fail – as it often does.
Gagnon’s international organization based in Maine has questioned the use of nuclear energy and the deployment of weapons in space since its inception in 1992. The United States has favored nuclear energy as a source of ‘energy for space weapons (LA Times, 07/25/88). He added:
The media, while ignoring the story of the Martian rover’s plutonium, is also guilty of failing to report the years of toxic contamination in the Energy Department’s nuclear laboratories where these space nuclear devices are produced. The Idaho Nuclear Lab and Los Alamos Nuclear Lab in New Mexico have a long history of worker and environmental contamination during this dirty space nuclear weapons manufacturing process.
The public will have to do more than cross their fingers in the hope that nothing is right. We need to speak out loud so that Congress, NASA, and the DoE hear that we are not supporting the nuclearization of the heavens. Go solar or better yet – stay home and use our taxes to take care of the legions of people with no jobs, no healthcare, no food or no heat. March can wait.