An email from someone with ball bearings on his mind...

With a response by Russell D. Hoffman

This is a bit of correspondence with someone who emailed me in opposition to our views on Cassini. The man states that my logic for refuting RTGs, if applied to ball bearings, would indicate they are also "old tech", "just because they were invented and tested years ago."

There are at least two answers to this type of misconception, which is often used by the nuclear power elite. First of all, if ball bearings were proven deadly -- if they were, for example, made out of plutonium -- it may well make perfect sense to do away with them by designing alternatives. Second of all, it appears this man has never heard of roller bearings or needle bearings or journal bearings (and the new ceramics these things are sometimes made of) or any of the other alternatives to ball bearings. Alternatives that in many instances are indeed better than the "old standard".

The proper comparison, then, is not to ball bearings alone, but to ball bearings as a functional tool, and to make the comparison completely relavant, one must compare radioactive ball bearings to safe alternatives which might even do the job better in the first place. Which would you choose?

His original email follows, then my reply:

At 08:41 AM 3/12/97, JB wrote:

Hello, as an undereducated PhD. scientist with a narrow mind, I wanted to say your Cassini page, while bring up some excellent points, was pretty unconvincing. You gloss over a lot of issues, and rely on "scare-tactics," which is not a really responsible means of doing things.

For example, you claim that this technology is, "old-tech," and , "outdated," but the criterion used to establish this could be used to say that we should not use ball bearings in machines because ball bearings were invented and tested many years ago. Hence, ball bearings have no place in a modern machine. Huh?

Moreover, your claims that 90% of satellites in orbit are inactive is true, but what you DON'T say is that most of them exceed their planned lifetime, and the reason failure modes aren't known is because after the planned lifetime has elapsed shutoffs are typically uninvestigated; the customer lost no on-orbit services.

Look, I don't like the Cassini project as run very much myself (for different, but administratively related reasons), but I would say one thing in defense of RTGs: We didn't have another option. Pages such as this do an awful lot to scare scientifically illiterate people (who are more and more prevalent in recent times), and provide NO ALTERNATIVES. Save 1% of the energy you use to protest on these pages, and provide an alternative power source for exploring the outer solar system.

I think as someone who has worked on Cassini (the cameras and science package), I would be willing to dispell my personal stakes and listen to your claims a bit more seriously if you provided one viable engineering alternative to RTGs. Solar panels simply do not function that far from the sun. RTGs _have_ survived not only collision, but re-entry and the plutonium capsules were found and re-used!

I have contacted my congressmen and stated my support for the Cassini project, and will encourage others to do so as well but only after explaining both sides of this contraversial issue.

Thank you for your page, it made me question my beliefs about Cassini, and that I always consider a good thing.


Here is my reply:

To: JB
From: Russell Hoffman
Re: Your email to me regarding CASSINI

Dear Sir,

THANK YOU for your email. It is worth 100 emails in blind support of our opinions, or even 1000...

Since you have been so kind as to email me in the first place, you surely deserve my best efforts and you shall get them. If I at times appear to ramble, please forgive me. I think CASSINI is part of a much larger problem but I have tried to remain reasonably relevant.

First of all, I would have to say that I for one am convinced that the production of plutonium has been an awful mistake from start to finish. There are now millions of pounds of this stuff created, with no known safe storage solution. Remember the whole history of nuclear power: Too cheap to meter, we'll rocket the waste to the sun, we'll find a cure for cancer so that won't be a problem. All these were used by the nuclear power elite to convince us that it was a safe option. So if WE appear to use, as you put it, "scare tactics", please remember that the other side has used obfuscation, lies, and pure falsehoods for decades. At least we are merely accentuating the negative! Our "worst case scenarios" are perfectly plausible. It is a question of how likely. I, like you, expect that if CASSINI flies, it will probably do so without a problem. I, like you, agree that that is the most likely scenario. Did I really need to say that?

Plutonium needs to be stored and safeguarded on earth for 10's of thousands of years and I don't see how something like that can ever be cost-effective, as a fuel, a weapon, or even as a smoke detector. I do not believe any unguarded long-term storage plan is viable from a safety standpoint, and no guarded one is financially viable. And, dilution is seldom the correct solution to pollution! So NASA shouldn't have had the plutonium option available in the first place. When I say nuclear is "old technology" what I mean is that it has been proven to be a boondoggle in virtually every other way imaginable (if not as an RTG). Even X-rays have increasingly been able to be replaced by MRI's and other even newer imaging techniques. As a weapon, nuclear weapons are in my mind less safe than chemical and biological weapons would have been, but we banned those by International Convention. At least those types of weapons could have been properly destroyed when they were no longer needed. Nuclear weapons cannot be effectively destroyed and must be safeguarded even when we no longer need them. Hydroelectric and other renewable power sources have been used instead of nuclear power here on earth. I personally would have rather seen NIAGARA FALLS stopped up completely than the -- what is it, about 10 -- nuclear reactors that run instead just so we can watch that mighty waterfall. We need a sustainable environment. Mankind should expect to be on this earth for 10's or 100's of thousands of years. We are only in our 1000th generation or so as a species. Don't you agree we've made an awful mess of this planet in just the last 10 generations? We are not anywhere near sustainability and using the nuclear option is just one example of that. And yes, I think all this is relevant to a discussion of NASA's choice of perpetuating the use of nuclear. CASSINI won't be the last. They also want orbiting nuclear power plants for STAR WARS and it's descendants.

I believe the solar alternatives for RTGs, if not wholly viable now -- which FOI documents obtained from NASA itself by Karl Grossman indicate it is -- could have been viable if it had been actively persued by NASA. At the very least, with nanotechnology, micromachines, light-based computing, and other technologies that we all know are coming in the next few decades, well, surely the power requirements of the exact same scientific goals of the CASSINI mission could be 1/10th or even 1/100th of what the current requirements are. That would mean alternative power arrangements might suffice. Or at least, using 7.23 pounds of plutonium instead of 72.3 pounds. And, I believe that would have been worth waiting for, ESPECIALLY since if NASA was learning how to build extremely low-power devices, that would have direct benefits here on earth. We (the people) invested in NASA heavily in large part because we believed we would all reap the benefits. Reducing power consumption of everyday devices as a result of investing billions of dollars in NASA research would be a very good deal for society. Instead, NASA is using something nobody on earth needs.

As for the RTGs ability to survive re-entry, first of all, I got into this project from my opposition to the rampant creation of SPACE DEBRIS. I don't think even NASA would dare claim that the RTGs could survive a collision with any significant pea-sized or marble-sized piece of space debris, and since they can only track things larger than about the size of a softball, obviously that is taking a pure chance.

How risky is it? Risk assessment has to include perceived gain, and there, I refer to my comments above regarding bringing NASA technology out into the rest of society. If we could do it differently and eliminate the need for the RTGs, then it's that much harder to justify taking the risk at all. Also, NASA and other space agencies have made a horrible, horrible mess in Near Earth Orbit. There is no doubt -- none whatsoever in my mind -- that NASA has been negligent in the past regarding the creation of space debris. In the first few decades I am sure they did not care one iota about it. Now, at last, they at least seem to give it some lip service, but with current proposals to put hundreds of new satellites into orbit, clearly the problem has still NOT been fairly considered.

At the current rate of increase of space debris, we can probably just about forget ANY space travel in the next couple of centuries -- it will be impossible to get off the planet to go anywhere else because of the "deadly gauntlet"! I dare anyone at NASA to prove otherwise. Instead they are relying on two unproven ideas, namely that they will A) stop creating it at the current rate, and B) come up with skimmer solutions and blasting-it-out-of-the-way solutions. Our current rate of creation of space debris is not workable. NASA has tried to come up with schemes to solve the problem but they have not succeeded, and it is not right, it is not fair, to expect uninvented technologies to solve problems you create today.

The speed of CASSINI on the flyby will be about 43,000 MPH. A slight miscalculation or extended firing of the positioning rockets that bring it closer to Earth would mean an extremely shallow re-entry slope. It is reasonable to doubt that the RTGs would survive something like that. I have not heard of RTGs having been reused after surviving a collision and re-entry. (I would appreciate it if you could cite that example you gave specifically. Which mission?) What I hear is quite different: That they've been scattered, lost, etc., or burnt up in the upper atmosphere. Also, if the half-burned payload (still intact, though) smashes into a population center, it could truly have immediate deadly consequences from the plutonium being scattered. That's not a scare tactic, that's a simple reality. Manhattan could be rendered uninhabitable in seconds. Sure, that's got to be the absolute worst-case scenario and pretty unlikely. Does that mean it cannot be mentioned? Does that mean it shouldn't be considered? We as a nation have failed to think about the unthinkable for long enough.

I think a lot of the "worst case" scenarios are pretty darned scary. I think the public is, unfortunately, unable to deal properly with statistical things. I mean, when something like 1 in 5 Americans will die because they smoke cigarettes, obviously there is a problem in the average American's basic understanding of statistics. No one in their right mind smokes, right? Yet some very intelligent people smoke. I find that unreconcilable in my mind but of course, I have my own failures along similar lines, like living on a fault line. (Just wanted to make sure you don't think I think I'm any different.)

In conclusion, it's unfair to ask me to supply an alternative power source TODAY for CASSINI. There are some pretty clear ones coming. And, if NASA had been forced to consider the alternatives... well, they're supposed to be pretty bright and I think they could have come up with something. Something that we all here on earth could have benefitted from.

Thank you, again, for writing. I hope I've answered your questions and that you'll decide to rewrite your congresspeople and tell them you've changed your mind. I realize that's not too likely, but if you wish to continue this correspondence, I sure would appreciate it. What parts of your email do you not feel I've answered properly?

Russell D. Hoffman

It's been over a month new, and I haven't received any further correspondence, so I guess he feels I've answered his questions properly, and I presume(!) that he's sending fresh emails to all his congresspeople and colleagues and explaining the real situation...
This article has been presented on the World Wide Web by:

The Animated Software Company
Mail to:
First placed online March 24th, 1997.
Last modified April 19th, 1997.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman