Nuclear-powered activities in space by the United States of America are illegal under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the “basic framework on international space law,” as notes the United Nations in describing the treaty (see on UN’s website: http://www3.un.or.at/OOSAKiosk/treat/ost/ost.html)
The Outer Space Treaty specifically says: “States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.” However, the U.S. ever since 1991 when the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Department of energy entered into a Space Nuclear Power Agreement has been covering its nuclear space flights with the Price-Anderson Act. This is a U.S. law which would limit liability in the event of a nuclear accident since 1991 including covering any nuclear-fueled space device such as Cassini to $8.9 billion for U.S. domestic damage and just $100 million for damage to all foreign nations.
Thus if the “inadvertent reentry” of Cassini that NASA is concerned about occurring on its planned August 1999 Earth “flyby” does happen, and a part of Africa or Asia or Europe or Latin America is impacted, all the nations and all the people affected could collect in damages despite the amount of land left contaminated, the number of people left with cancer would be $100 million. As Dan Berkovitz, a long-time counsel in the U.S. Congress involved in this issue, explained to me about this outrageous U.S. double standard: “You have to understand that the rest of the world is not much of a constituency here in Washington.”
And we're speaking of potentially huge damage. NASA intends to send the Cassini space probe and its 72.3 pounds of plutonium dioxide fuel hurtling at Earth at 42,300 miles per hour for a “gravity assist” or “slingshot” maneuver to give it additional velocity so it can reach its final destination of Saturn. It’s supposed to buzz the Earth at 496 miles high on August 18 next year.
But, says NASA its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission, if the probe does not come in at 496 miles high, if it dips down after hundreds of millions of miles in space into the Earth’s 75-mile high atmosphere and makes an “inadvertent reentry”--it will break up, the Final Environmental Impact Statement concedes. Plutonium will be released. And, says the Final Environmental Impact Statement, ”approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population at the time … could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure.”
NASA in the statement says 2,300 fatal cancers could result. It also outlines its plan, if plutonium rains down on areas of natural vegetation, to “relocate animals,” if it falls an agricultural land, to “ban future agricultural land uses” and, if it rains on urban areas, to “demolish some or all structures” and “relocate affected population permanently.” But the U.S. government’s Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Panel Safety Evaluation Report on the Cassini Mission, obtained by Dr. Earl Budin, radiology professor at UCLA, speaks of the possibility of “several tens of thousands” of cancer deaths. It also notes that in a Cassini Earth “flyby” accident because the plutonium cannisters “have not been designed for the high speed reentry…much of the plutonium is vaporized” and provides “a collective dose to the world’s population.”
A report from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory also obtained by Dr. Budin lists some 20-plus ways that Cassini can undergo an “Earth impact”on its planned “flyby” from rocket engine failure to ground control error.
Of course, NASA insists the likelihood of this is small…just as NASA insisted that an accident when Cassini was launched exactly a year ago was small. Then, this summer, on August 12, 1998, a Titan IV rocket like the one that lofted Cassini exploded on launch at Cape Canaveral, blowing a $1.3 billion U.S. spy satellite to smithereens. In 1993, another Titan IV blew up on launch. Twenty-five Titan IV launches, two disastrous launch accidents. Cassini did get up. But that’s a record of one-in-12 for catastrophic launch accidents, despite NASA’s assurances that the probability of the Titan IV lofting Cassini blowing up on launch was very small.
NASA, as Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, a member of the Presidential commission which investigated the Challenger accident, concluded, “exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.”
Moreover, even if the Cassini Earth “flyby” is not stopped, goes ahead and is successful, NASA is planning eight more plutonium space probe shots in coming years, according to a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office. A NASA statement speaks of up to 13. With a 12% failure rate already in both the U.S. and Soviet/Russian space nuclear programs, accidents and disaster are inevitable. Meanwhile, the United States is also moving to deploy weapons in space and to exercise what it terms “space control.” This is closely linked with space nuclear power.
As the 1996 U.S. Air Force report New World Vistas states: “In the next two decades, new technologies will allowing the fielding of space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness to be used to deliver energy and mass as force projection in tactical and strategic conflict…These advances will enable lasers with reasonable mass and cost to effect very many kills.” But, notes the report, “power limitations impose restrictions” on space-based weapons systems making them “relatively unfeasible….A natural technology to enable high power,” it goes on, “is nuclear power in space.”
In April of this year, the U.S. government let contracts for the development of this spaceborne laser, not nuclear powered but a first step towards space-based nuclear-energized weaponry.
The Outer Space Treaty bans deployment in space by any nations of “weapons of mass destruction.” And the treaty, of which the U.S., the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union were the initiators and which has now been ratified by 91 countries--also states that nations should “avoid “ activities that stand to produce “harmful contamination (of) space and celestial bodies” as well as “adverse changes in the environment of the Earth.”
General Joseph Ashy as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Space Command has stated: “It’s politically sensitive, but it’s going to happen…Some people don’t want to hear this, and it sure isn’t in vogue, but absolutely we’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space…That’s why the U.S. has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms.”
The U.S. space weapons approach is detailed in this book, The Future of War: Power, Technology & American World Dominance in the 2lst Century, in which George and Meredith Friedman state that through the deployment of weaponry in space the U.S. will be able to dominate the planet below. “Just as Europe shaped the world for a half a millennium”--by Britain, France and Spain dominating the oceans with their fleets--“so too the United States will shape the world for at least that length of time,” they declare. And they boost the use of nuclear power as an energy source for space-based weapons.
A U.S. National Space Symposium in April at which the new space-borne laser contract was announced was, said the ads of the United States Space Foundation for it designed to “explore the Global Relevance of Space and the interdependence of Civil and Commercial and Military space efforts. It is clear that `space is open for business.’”
I say space must not be declared “open” for the colossally dangerous, wasteful and illegal nuclear and military “business.” Space, as the Outer Space Treaty states, should be used “for peaceful purposes…The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries.”
Karl Grossman is a full professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who for almost 30 years has pioneered combining investigative reporting and environmental journalism. He is the author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet (Common Courage Press, 1997) and writer and narrator of the award-winning video documentary Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (EnviroVideo 1995).
His journalism on the use of nuclear power in space has been repeatedly cited in the annual judging of Sonoma State University’s Project Censored as among the issues most “censored” or “under-reported” by the U.S. news media. In 1997, Project Censored selected Grossman’s articles on the subject as its “top censored story of 1996.” This year he was again cited by Project Censored for his journalism on the use of nuclear power in space with his reporting on the crash of the Russian Mars 96 space probe into Chile and Bolivia being listed on the Project Censored list. Grossman’s journalism on the issue has been cited by Project Censored more times than any other specific issue in Project Censored’s history. The first citation Grossman received from Project Censored on the issue was in 1987 for his revelation in 1986 that the next schedule mission of the ill-fated shuttle Challenger involved a plutonium-fueled space probe. He is now completing with EnviroVideo Nukes In Space: Part II, to be available November, 1998.
He is a member of the Commission on Disarmament Education, Conflict Resolution and Peace of the International Association of University Presidents and the United Nations.
Reprinted online by permission of the author.