Plutonium in space: what are the chances of a disaster?
With all the hype over the past week about the Perseverance rover, it was almost completely ignored that its energy source is plutonium – considered the deadliest of all radioactive substances – and nowhere in the media than NASA projected a probability of 1 in 960 that the plutonium would be released in an accident on the mission.
“A ‘one in 960’ chance of a lethal release of plutonium is a real concern – gamers in Las Vegas would be happy with those chances,” says Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in the space.
This is because big prize lotteries have odds well over 1 in 960 and people regularly win these lotteries.
Additionally, NASA’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIS) for the $ 3.7 billion mission recognizes that an “alternative” energy source for Perseverance could have been solar power. Solar energy using photovoltaic panels has been the energy source for a succession of Martian rovers.
For an accident releasing plutonium during the launch of Perseverance – and 1 in 100 rockets suffered major malfunctions at launch mainly due to the explosion – NASA in its SEIS described these impacts for the area around Cape Kennedy under the title “Impacts of radiological discharges on the environment. “
He states: “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 sites. , archaeological and historical, urban areas, inland waters and the ocean have also had effects on wildlife. “
He adds: “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 forced to disclose the probabilities of a plutonium-releasing accident, alternatives to the use of nuclear power on persistence, and the consequences of a plutonium release under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Its SEIS can be viewed online at https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/files/mep/Mars2020_Final_EIS.pdf
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 started getting it from Russia, in recent years this is no longer the case. 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 of plutonium used in atomic bombs and as a “trigger” in hydrogen bombs.
There are 10.6 pounds of plutonium-238 on Perseverance.
We could have avoided 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 with Perseverance and its plutonium-238 disintegrating on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and the plutonium dispersed.
But NASA is 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 to be placed on the Moon and Mars, the Russian nuclear roulette based in space is at hand.
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 the MMRTG on Perseverance 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” which proposes that the rover use a plutonium-powered MMRTG “to continuously supply heat and electrical power to the rover’s battery so that the rover can operate and conduct scientific work. on the surface of the planet. “
This is followed by “Alternative 2” which states: “As part of this alternative, NASA would stop 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. “
America’s worst accident involving the use of nuclear power in space occurred in 1964 when the US Transit 5BN-3 satellite, powered by a SNAP-9A plutonium-powered radioisotope thermoelectric generator, failed to reach orbit and fell from the sky. It shattered while burning in the atmosphere. This accident has long been linked to a spike in lung cancer rates around the world, where plutonium was spread by Dr. John Gofman, MD and PhD, professor of medical physics at the University of California in Berkeley. NASA, after the SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) accident, 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 under 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 it. a 373 mile strip from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake in Canada. . There were 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium fuel aboard Cosmos 954.
I started writing many articles on the use of nuclear power in space 35 years ago when I told the story in The nation magazine about how the ill-fated Challenger shuttle’s next mission was to fly the Ulysses space probe fueled with 24.2 pounds of plutonium-238 (to drive orbits around the sun).
If the Challenger had exploded during this mission, scheduled for May 1986, instead of exploding on January 28, 1986, and the plutonium released, it would not be six astronauts and space professor Chris McAuliffe dying but many more people. . .
Chasing the problem, I wrote the books The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet and Weapons in space, and 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 absence in the media of reports on the Perseverance Mars rover of the dangers associated with nuclear material and the chances of dispersion of this plutonium is not 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 after the crash of William Boot’s Challenger, its former editor, titled “NASA and the Spellbound Press”. He wrote: “Dazzled by the image of the space agency’s technological genius, space reporters spared a thorough NASA scrutiny that could have improved the odds of averting a tragedy – thanks to hard-hitting investigations attracting the wandering attention of Congress on the issue of shuttle safety.
He found “credulity” in the press. “The press,” he writes, “is” enthused by the adventures of man in space. ” He said that “American journalists have a long love affair with the space program.” He said that “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?)”
Also in Bad things I wrote about a talk on “Science and the Media” by the New York Times space reporter John Noble Wilford in 1990 at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He 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.”
On NBC Today “, The attitude of the journalists was as festive on the morning of the landing as the label of the video broadcast showing” Jubilation at NASA Control “. There was never any question of nuclear energy or plutonium, nor of the recognized risks of accidents and the dispersion of plutonium.
“I am disheartened that the media is reluctant to mention the words ‘plutonium’ or ‘accidental release probability’ in their so-called report on the rover’s arrival on Mars. You have to ask who they work for, ”says Bruce Gagnon of the Global Network.
“We hear the excited anticipation of the nuclear industry daily as stories reveal the growing plans for hosts to launch nuclear devices – more rovers to Mars, mining colonies on the Moon, even nuclear reactors to power rockets bound for Mars. The nuclear industry rolls the dice as the people of Earth cross their fingers in the hope that the technology does not fail – as it often does, ”said Gagnon, of the Maine-based international organization. which, since its creation in 1992, disputes its use. nuclear and the deployment of weapons in outer space. The United States has favored nuclear energy as a source of energy for space weapons.
Further, said Gagnon, “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 nuclear devices spaces are produced. The Idaho Nuclear Lab and Los Alamos Nuclear Lab in New Mexico have a long history of contaminating workers and the environment during this dirty nuclear weapons manufacturing process. “
Said Gagnon: “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. Switch to solar power 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. “