We Don't Need Reactors in Space

Ignoring safe solar power, we send plutonium-laden probes into orbit

Viewpoint By Karl Grossman

Karl Grossman is the author of The Wrong Stuff

This article originally appeared in Newsday: The Long Island Newspaper May 31st, 1991.

Reprinted by permission of the author

While getting into position to make a low-level (186-mile high), high-speed (33,000 miles an hour) "flyby" of the Earth, the Galileo plutonium-fueled space probe has gone out of whack.

The probe, which is supposed to send us information about Jupiter and its moons, unexpectedly shut down all but in essential functions in late March. It took the National Aeronautics and Space Administration 13 days to fix that. Then NASA ordered the probe to unfurl its main communications antenna. But the antenna wouldn't unfurl. Next, on May 2, all but essential functions were lost again.

NASA blames the March and May malfunctions on a "stray electronic signal." It still can't figure out why the antenna isn't working.

Galileo, with its 50 pounds of plutonium aboard - theoretically enough to give a lethal dose of lung cancer to everyone on Earth - will be buzzing our planet in December, 1992. This "slingshot maneuver" is designed to use the Earth's gravity to give Galileo the velocity to get to Jupiter.

It is to be hoped that there will be no foul-ups in Galileo'a functioning then, causing it to make what is called an "Earth-impacting trajectory."

With the probe just above the Earth's atmosphere on the flyby, it would take only a small malfunction to cause it to drop and disintegrate, showering plutonium down on Earth.

The United States is proceeding rapidly with the nuclearization of space, and the threat we face from Galileo is the kind of danger we will be undergoing constantly if we allow the government to continue to send nuclear hardware into space. If we tolerate Chernobyls in the sky, deadly accidents will be inevitable.

Yet this risk is unnecessary. The potential catastrophes are avoidable. After Galileo was launched in 1989, I received, under the Freedom of Information Act, NASA-funded studies declaring that nuclear power was not necessary to generate electricity on the Galileo mission; solar energy would do.

The plutonium on board Galileo is being used not for propulsion but as fuel in generators providing a mere 560 watts of electricity for the probe's instruments - electricity that could be produced instead by solar energy. A decade ago NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory concluded: "A Galileo Jupiter-orbiting mission could be performed with a concentrated photovoltaic solar array [panels converting sunlight to electricity] power source without changing the mission sequence or impacting science objectives." Five years ago, another JPL study said that it would take only two to three years to build the alternative solar-power source. Still another JPL report stressed that using the sun for power would cost less than using plutonium. It is humanity's destiny to explore the heavens, but what a folly it will be if in doing this, we needlessly cause the deaths of tens of thousands of people and contaminate the Earth with deadly plutonium.

The federal government and its national laboratories, zealous about nuclear power of all sorts, are pushing nuclear technology in space. So are space contractors such as General Electric, which produces nuclear space devices (including those on Galileo) and is having a hard time peddling nuclear power for use on Earth.

Star Wars is contingent on the launching of 100 orbiting battle platforms, each with a large nuclear reactor to provide power for its laser weapons, hypervelocity guns and particle beams. GE is now busy manufacturing what is to be the main Star Wars space reactor, the SP-100.

In coming days, the Synthesis Group, a panel established last year (1990) by NASA and the White House, is expected to recommend nuclear-powered rockets for the manned Moon-Mars missions proposed by President George Bush.

And the Pentagon, amid great secrecy to avoid public objections (not for national defense reasons) is developing a nuclear-propelled rocket to haul Star Wars weaponry into space. To spread radioactivity, a nuclear-propelled rocket need not crash back to Earth. As they fly, these rockets would inevitably trail clouds of radioactivity in their exhaust. A flight test in space above Antarctica is being planned for the Star Wars nuclear rocket. It seems the location was chosen so that if there is a malfunction, the chief victims would be penguins. Unfortuntely, New Zealand also gets in the way. One U.S. government study says that the likelihood of the nuclear-powered rocket crashing into New Zealand is 1 in 2,325. This may sound like fairly good odds, but remember, NASA put the odds of a space shuttle crash at 1 in 100,000, before the Challenger exploded.

The record of nuclear power in space is poor. The United States has launched 24 nuclear-fueled space devices, including a navigational satellite with plutonium aboard that disintegrated in the atmosphere as it plunged to Earth in 1964. The U.S. failure rate for nuclear-powered space devices has been about 15 percent. The Soviet Union has the same failure rate. The Soviets have sent up more than 30 nuclear-fueled devices, including the Kosmos 954, which littered a broad swath of Canada with radioactive debris when it crashed in 1978.

The United States spent some $2 billion of taxpayer money on developing nuclear-powered rockets from 1955 to 1973, but none ever got off the ground. That effort was finally canceled because of the concern that a rocket might crash to Earth.

Now we're turning to nuclear power in space -- with its inevitable mishaps -- again. Last year the United States launched the Ulysses plutonium-fueled probe to survey the sun. A December Associated Press dispatch noted, "The Ulysses spacecraft is wobbling like an off-balance washing machine, threatening to cripple the $760-million mission." Fortunately, the probe is not coming back for an Earth flyby.

The U.S. government prefers nuclear power even when solar energy is an ideal alternative, as on Ulysses. For the 1996 Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby mission, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has said that solar energy could replace plutonium power. There is plenty of time to arrange the solar alternative. Nevertheless, NASA last year began contract negotiations with GE to build plutonium-fueled generators for this mission.

Even for Star Wars, solar power could suffice (that is, if we want Star Wars in any form). Pressed at a congressional hearing in 1988 on "The Future of Space Nuclear Power," Col. George Hess, then of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, the Pentagon's Star Wars office, declared: "I believe in the inventiveness of the American engineer, sir; that if we were restricted to have no nuclear power that we would address other options."

But other options have not been - and are not being - addressed. NASA and the Defense and Energy Departments have just opened up a Nuclear Propulsion Systems Office to develop nuclear-powered rockets for both space exploration and Star Wars.

The United States is even balking at the UN General Assembly's efforts to set international rules restricting nuclear power in space. The Pentagon complains that the proposed UN guidelines could pose obstacles to Star Wars; NASA fears constraints on its missions.

Good sense, the profound dangers of radioactivity, the lessons of history, economic limits and even the law of gravity are being ignored as the United States veers from safe alternatives to nuclearize space.

by Karl Grossman

Karl Grossman is a journalism professor at the State University of New York and author of "Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed To Know About Nuclear Power."

Reprinted online by permission of the author.

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