An answer to Mary Beth Murrill of NASA

By Russell D. Hoffman

Copyright (c) 1997

A friend, Frederica Russell, received a letter from NASA employee Mary Beth Murrill in response to Ms Russell's request for information pertaining to the possibility that the RTGs on Cassini are specifically designed to incinerated completely on an Earth flyby accidental reentry. Murrill's answers fall somewhat short of enlightening, and I have taken each paragraph of her letter and responded to Murrill's contentions. This article contains the entire text, in order, as received by Frederica Russell from Mary Beth Murrill.
At 01:39 AM 4/24/97 -0300, you wrote:
Hi Russell,
This just came in from Mary Beth Murrill. How does her explanation sound to you??
Have a happy day!!
Your friend,

Dear Frederica,

This letter is actually pretty easy to answer (but a waste of time, really). Please tell Mary Beth Murrill she will have to try harder than that to convince anyone. She is either uninformed or lying. I'll leave it to her to say which...

I have taken each paragraph and provided a response.

Mary Beth Murrill's first paragraph follows:
To answer your question, be assured that RTGs are designed to contain their plutonium-238 in the event of a launch or reentry accident. They have been shown to do so, both in a launch explosion where the RTG survived intact and was picked up off the floor of the Pacific, and in a reentry when the Apollo lunar module, carrying an RTG, was jettisoned and landed safely, as it was designed to do, in the South Pacific during the reentry of the astronauts' capsule.

This is malarkey. The specific statement that I made, the assertion, is that THE RTG'S ARE DESIGNED TO INCINERATE DURING AN ACCIDENTAL REENTRY DURING THE EARTH FLYBY PHASE OF THE MISSION. So let's not mix launch accidents with flyby accidents.

One thing this means, (and do tell NASA this for me) is that my demands for proof I'm wrong will not go away at launch.

But let's look closer at her malarkey. The first part of the second sentence, about the launch explosion, is irrelevant. We are talking about the Earth flyby, not the launch. So she has not answered your (our) specific question. The second part of the second sentence of Murrill's first paragraph claims that the Apollo lunar RTG was "jettisoned and landed safely". This has ABSOLUTELY not been proven. No RTG has been found, no one saw it land. And perhaps most importantly, it wasn't traveling at 43,000 MPH at the time. So Murrill has said nothing so far. And the Apollo 13 lunar RTG wasn't like the Cassini RTGs in design or structure or placement.

Her next paragraph:
There seems to be confusion between RTGs of the design used in the early 1960s versus RTGs used since 1965. The earlier design philosophy, in the days when atmospheric nuclear testing was also occurring, was to for RTGs to release their fuel into the atmosphere in the event of a reentry. An RTG involved in a 1964 reentry (SNAP 9A) did just that. The design philosophy was changed in 1965, about the same era that atmospheric nuclear testing was halted. (Unfortunately, DOE didn't change the name of the generators when they changed the design to contain rather than disperse the fuel. Had the generators been called something else to reflect the new design, there would be a lot less confusion now about how RTGs behave in the event of a launch accident or reentry.)

She is claiming here that there is some sort of confusion with early designs which were SPECIFICALLY designed to "release their fuel in the atmosphere in the event of a reentry". I am fully aware of that "previous" design philosophy and the fact that they supposedly no longer do that. I am not looking at early designs, I am not thinking about early designs. I KNOW the early designs were specifically designed that way. That was certainly stupid, yet it took a test-ban treaty for NASA to even pretend to shape up. I'm saying that THESE Cassini RTGs are designed to incinerate if an accidental reentry occurs during the flyby. I would not care what their names are -- they can call them GFTHs (GIFT FROM THE HEAVENS) instead of RTGs (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators) if they want, or anything else (but GFTH would be particularly inappropriate on several levels, of course). No, Murrill, you are the only one who appears to be confused. No one is mistaking the Cassini RTGs for SNAP-9As or anything else you've launched.

Her next paragraph:
The risk to the world population from a swingby reentry accident is very low. A series of tests and in-depth analyses were conducted to determine and validate design strategies and measures that reduce the probability of an inadvertent Earth swingby reentry accident to less than one in one million. This small probability, which has been validated by experts outside of NASA, is achieved by biasing the spacecraft trajectory away from the Earth. The biasing strategy effects, coupled with redundant spacecraft system design, built-in fault detection and correction systems, and the ability of ground-control to send signals to the spacecraft, lead to the exceedingly small probability of Earth impact. Even if you assume there is a swingby reentry accident, the radiation that an exposed person would be expected to receive over 50 years is thousands of times smaller than the radiation dose they will receive from natural background radiation such as radon and cosmic rays.

The calculated risk is supposedly one in one million. However, having flown so few flights, NASA's experts are hardly working on real data. If you want to play with such dangerous toys, NASA, then I think you owe us some PROOF of reliability, not your funky estimates. When the solar options you deny are so easily obtained, when new technologies are coming along so fast that the power requirements of Cassini could be one tenth of what Cassini's are in a decade or so (reducing the need for so much plutonium)... One has to wonder what it would take for NASA to be convinced to do the right thing.

The unnamed "experts outside of NASA" are companies like Halliburton NUS as I wrote about in a previous article (cited below). Or was it Martin, Morton, or General? Or one or more of the other NASA buddies? What "experts outside of NASA" is she referring to?

She claims the 'biasing strategy' (in which the spacecraft is aimed "off to the side" until about 10 days before the flyby) helps to achieve their remarkably pretty value of one in one million risk. But don't forget, that the Earth is the biggest thing in the neighborhood and is pulling everything towards it... OF COURSE they have to bias away from Earth! Otherwise they'd fall right into us! This is furthermore NOT a safety move because it forces them to fire the rockets TOWARDS EARTH for some period of time (probably in several steps). If an extended firing occurs during any of these maneuvers, the probe will be driven towards Earth, and then: Houston (and Washington), we have ANOTHER problem!

The redundant spacecraft design? Did you know none of the scientific instruments will be shake-tested before the flight (the spacecraft itself will be, but it was deemed TOO EXPENSIVE to shake-test the scientific experiments themselves). How do we know that an untested part won't fall off and jam a successfully tested control linkage? I don't trust NASA numbers. And NASA numbers, those 'trustworthy' things we grew up with, are never very meaningful anyway. Shuttle accident risk estimated before Challenger: 1 in 100,000. For nearly 10 years after? 1 in 78. Now? 1 in 500 (still 20 times worse than NASA's original estimate.) So why should I trust NASA numbers? They change all the time.

A simple o-ring did in Challenger. A loose bolt in a doorway disrupted a recent (1997) shuttle flight. And then there was that "fuel cell" problem on the last mission, which even if it helped NASA try to prove it needs 'reliable' RTGs, really just proves once again that NASA CANNOT GUARANTEE ANY REASONABLE RELIABILITY RATE. Are we going to risk NASA's "one in one million" figure without hard proof, when all the HARD PROOF we've ever seen (previous NASA success rates) indicates they are wildly optimistic in their numbers and their promises and frankly, NASA fails on a regular basis. Time and again, NASA has shown they cannot deliver the goods reliably. NASA should learn to work within reasonable reliability limits rather than always thinking they can be perfect. By not using plutonium in the first place, they would not have had to try to achieve their "one in one million" safety rate. (They might try to achieve it for other (cost-based) reasons, but the "need" would be removed.)

Murrill's final sentence in this paragraph is very pure malarkey. First of all, even if true, that does NOT mean there will not be millions of deaths directly caused by an accident. Just because there is radiation in the world doesn't mean it's alright for there to be more radiation. Even NASA admits that billions of people will be exposed (and that's just in the first 50 years.) Second of all, NASA has NOT released actual numbers of what amount of plutonium we each will relieve in a WORST CASE REENTRY. What Murrill is referring to when she says we each will receive an insignificant dose, is NASA's averaged values. But in a total RTG incineration (the most likely RTG incineration is a total one, I contend) we might each receive, on average, 100 times that value (depending on which value she's actually using, of course.) With the RTGs being designed the way they are, it is absolutely absurd to present the RTG incineration percentages NASA presents.

Also, with billions of exposures, many people will receive dozens or even hundreds of times the "average" dose. Yet even the average dose can be shown to be dangerous. NASA math is not math at all. (Please see my draft answer to NASA's DSIES on the Cassini Mission which goes into this matter in much greater detail.)

Her next paragraph:
The changes in the swingby estimates are the product of the much more refined safety analysis process which continued after the publication of the June 1995 EIS, and incorporated a higher degree of detail than was available for the June 1995 EIS estimation process. The updated swingby reentry risk estimate presented in the SEIS is based on a more refined analysis techniques on the RTGs assuming they were subjected to the environment of a swingby reentry. This analysis has resulted in estimated releases and resulting radiation exposures that are smaller than those presented in the June 1995 EIS.

Well, aren't they proud of themselves! They figured a way to reduce their fictitious numbers. This paragraph really says very little. But I might add that it does show once again how NASA numbers can fluctuate! And I just wonder if NASA has taken into account that in the two years Cassini is in flight before the Earth flyby, additional space debris that might be created from accidents that occur between now and then will alter the figures. Therefore, prior to the actual flyby, I am calling for another Environmental Impact Statement to be presented specifically looking at the current Space Debris situation at the time of the flyby. Not to mention new population figures. That's assuming, of course, NASA was foolhardy and arrogant enough to have launched Cassini in the first place.

Her next paragraph:
The current analysis estimates that a swingby reentry could release some plutonium dioxide into the atmosphere. The fine particles that are potentially hazardous to people would remain suspended high in the atmosphere for a long period of time. This would result in the particles being spread very thinly across the world and eventually making their way to the surface, mostly the oceans.

This is malarkey again, and again, of the highest sort! The fact that the particles will stay high in the atmosphere for many years is BAD, not GOOD! This very capability of them will mean they will be settling slowly through all altitudes and latitudes (just as NASA says) for many years.

The effect on dolphins, whales, and lower life forms in the sea means nothing to NASA, obviously. Also, the top layers of water will evaporate, which will lift the plutonium back into the air again, and again, and again. "mostly to the oceans" is not reassuring at all. About 70% or so of Earth's surface is water. So of 72 pounds, about 50 will eventually settle over water. And 20 over land. And again, NASA's contention that only "some plutonium dioxide" will be released flies in the face of the RTG design. More than NASA's "average" will be released. And note also that even if NASA is right that not all of the RTG's will incinerate, that means that the probe will make it all the way to Earth, incinerating as it falls. Which means the local and immediate effect could be devastating. If only one pound burns off, and it is burning as it lands (which it surely will be doing if it is not completely incinerated first) entire cities could be poisoned in moments, and with very little (if any) warning. After all, NASA, who watches everything that goes on in the Heavens as best they can, couldn't even figure out where the Russian Mars probe was going to fall, or that in fact it had already fallen, last fall. President Clinton called the Australian Prime Minister, so obviously they were trying to figure it out. But they couldn't. Cassini will be traveling much faster, so don't be surprised if, if it comes back to Earth, NASA cannot predict where it will land even two hours before impact. It will, after all, be about 86,000 miles from Earth at the time...

Her next paragraph:
Since the material is highly insoluble, once it reaches the surface most of it would become trapped in the oceans or soils and not pose a health hazard. Thus, most of the released material would not be breathed in by people. The small amount of breathable fine particles released that would be breathed in would be distributed among approximately 5 billion people; since the amount that could be breathed in is so tiny, the total radiation exposure that an exposed person would be expected to receive over 50 years is thousands of times smaller than the radiation dose such a person will receive from natural background radiation such as radon and cosmic rays.

It is surely true that "most of the released material will not be breathed in by people". Murrill has finally said something that is basically correct. But it will get into the food chain. People it does get into (billions) will die for one reason or another (some from the plutonium, most not). Many of them will be cremated, and the plutonium particles in their bodies will waft into the atmosphere to find another potential victim. So while it is true that much of it will be distributed around our fragile environment and not be directly breathed by people, it can still have a terrible effect. And of the exposure amounts and the calculation of the damage it will cause to people, her numbers are not the real numbers at all. First NASA takes away most of the plutonium by simply saying it will not burn, when in fact it probably will. When in fact it appears to be designed SPECIFICALLY to burn! Then they study the effects of high dose levels and attempt to extrapolate the equivalent effects of low level exposures, which is simply improper. NASA does not use valid studies, so you can't trust NASA's numbers.

Cosmic rays do not get inhaled and lodged in a persons's lung. The local cells near a plutonium particle are actually exposed to 1000s of REM a year. Radon is a big problem, but most people do not live near a radon hazard. Virtually everyone will get some of NASA's Cassini plutonium if there is a flyby accidental reentry.

Her next paragraph:
If using the assumption that low level radiation may cause cancer, then this would mean accepting the notion that a radiation dose that is more than 15,000 times smaller than the average natural background radiation is enough to cause cancer. Using that assumption, it has been estimated that this type of accident could result in about 120 cancer fatalities worldwide over 50 years.

Again, her numbers which NASA presents as fact, are in fact based on totally false assumptions about hazards, percentage that will burn, etc. And "average background radiation" DOES cause cancer -- lots of it. Cancer kills about 25% or more of all Americans, and it is usually not a very pleasant passing, either. NASA uses many assumptions to come up with their 120 cancer fatalities figure. It's malarkey.

Her next paragraph:
However, it is quite possible that such a low radiation dose (less than one millirem over 50 years) may not be capable of causing cancer in a person.

This is NOT "quite possible" at all! It is possible, yes, that many years of scientific research (research which NASA ignores) is wrong. It is possible, yes, that the biological mechanisms which indicate that there is no "minimum lethal dose" do not in fact work that way (there are many such mechanisms, by the way). It is possible, yes, that small amounts of plutonium are even good for you! (Some pro-nukers still try to claim this.) It is possible, yes, but not "quite possible". In fact it's not even likely. In fact, for this to be true, it would pretty much invalidate the scientific method as society generally uses it. Time and again, from Nevada testing to Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to reprocessing plants in France--time and again, the opposite has been "indicated". LOW LEVEL RADIATION KILLS. Yes, it is possible that it doesn't. And it is probably equally possible that cows really do jump over the moon. And I guess it is also equally possible that if cows really do jump over the moon, NASA would notice.

NASA wants to keep introducing the idea that there is an element of doubt in the indications from research done by such people as Dr. Sternglass, Dr. Gofman, Dr. Gould and others. But there is really very little doubt about this matter, and NASA should leave it alone. Face it, NASA: LOW LEVEL RADIATION KILLS. The fact that you harbor this doubt, NASA, shows how you could do such a thing as design the RTGs to incinerate. Because you don't believe there is really a health problem. You continue to dream, NASA, that it is just a publicity problem. It's a publicity problem because it's a health problem. Period. Deal with it.


Her penultimate paragraph:
Comments like those on the web page you referred me to should be sent to NASA as part of the public review and comment process for Cassini's Supplemental EIS. As an environmentalist, you'll understand that this is the mechanism that ensures and encourages full public review, comment and response to environmental concerns related to major efforts such as the Cassini program. In compliance with federal NEPA law, and as NASA has done with past iterations of the Cassini EIS, all comments and questions will be addressed in Cassini's final EIS.

I guess that would be MY web page she is talking about, which she obviously didn't read since she brings up so many points that were SPECIFICALLY answered there. I sent several draft documents to NASA (Mark Dahl) by overnight mail which they should have recieved on Wednesday, April 23rd. Anyone can hand them my documents as a personal submission of their own for NASA review, as I'm sure some will. Certainly, you have referred her to them but she not only gives no indication that she went there, she also doesn't answer the charges. You cannot answer my point-by-point logic showing that the RTGs appear to be designed to incinerate by simply stating "be assured that RTGs are designed to contain their plutonium-238 in the event of a launch or reentry accident". That's no answer at all. And to claim that I am somehow confusing Cassini's RTGs with pre-1965 models is absurd. She is stalling for time, because she knows that time is on her side.

In the package I sent to NASA I asked them to include the ENTIRE web site as additional documentation of my position. Clearly, they are not sophisticated enough to actually find this information themselves, so in the next day or so I will also send them a full printout of the website. Dr. Sternglass has a lot of information online for NASA to look at, but they evidently are not sophisticated enough to be able to find it, nor is Halliburton NUS who claim to have 70 million pages of text, but can't find anything on the extra-bad effects of low levels of radiation on woman's breasts, fetuses, and infants. (All Murrill talks about is "death".)

Mary Beth Murrill's final paragraph:
If you have unanswered questions about Cassini's nuclear safety, or if there are EIS documents you don't have but would like to have, please don't hesitate to call or email me.

Tell her YES!!! You do have unanswered questions about Cassini's nuclear dangers! MANY, MANY unanswered questions and remind her that you are entitled by law to real answers, not repetitious statements which you and I and others have already responded to, point by point. You are entitled to answers that NASA cannot truthfully give, because if they clean up their science and present the truth, no one would allow them to launch.

This and other articles from our web site discuss all these issues in greater detail:

Effects of low level radiation and NASA bad science:

RTGs appear to be designed to fail:


Russell D. Hoffman


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First placed online April 25th, 1997.
Last modified April 28th, 1997.
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Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman