Answers to NASA: Karl Grossman responds.

Karl Grossman is the author of The Wrong Stuff


>Date: Mon, 03 Feb 1997 07:50:54
>To: Francis Chiappa
>From: Karl Grossman

At 04:39 PM 1/31/97, Karl Grossman wrote:
I am posting this inquiry so that more detail about the use of plutonium in space exploration can be disseminated and discussed. Recently, I had a letter printed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, criticizing NASA's use of plutonium powered spacecraft. I received a cordial and thoughtful, but critical response from a NASA engineer, pointing out certain errors in my arguments. Since my letter was based in part on infomation posted to the abolition-caucus, I wanted to promote further discussion, so that we may all have the most accurate information available.

I will quote the criticisms of my letter, point by point. I am humbled by certain of my critic's comments and unconvinced and undeterred by others. I encourage readers who know the facts to post responses on any/every point to the abolition-caucus, so that we all may become better informed. (Visitors at the web site may email responses to Karl Grossman.)

Dear Francis Chiappa and other Abolition 2000-ists:

NASA is now in high gear -- obfuscating, BS-ing, and otherwise on quite a propaganda effort -- to defend its plan to, in October, launch the Cassini space probe with 72.3 pounds of plutonium fuel onboard.

It's important that people know the facts solidly. I am the author of two books on nuclear technology, COVER UP: WHAT YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO KNOW ABOUT NUCLEAR POWER and POWER CRAZY, and am quite familiar with nuclear matters. For 30 years I have specialized in doing investigative reporting on environmental issues. I am a full professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury. I got involved investigating the nuclear-in-space issue in 1985 after reading in a government bulletin about how there would be two shuttle missions in 1986 involving lofting plutonium-fueled space devices. After the Challenger disaster, I broke that story of how the next mission of the Challenger was to be one of those plutonium-fueled space probe missions (Ulysses, to orbit the Sun, with 25 pounds of plutonium onboard). And I have written voluminously on the issue ever since.

In July, Common Courage Press will be out with my book, THE WRONG STUFF: HOW NUKES IN SPACE THREATEN OUR PLANET. The 1995 video I wrote and narrated is NUKES IN SPACE: THE NUCLEARIZATION AND WEAPONIZATION OF THE HEAVENS. It is available through EnviroVideo at 1-800-ECO-TV46.

A recent and extensive magazine article by me on the issue, "Risking the world, Nuclear Proliferation in Space," was in the Summer 1996 CovertAction Quarterly. CAQ will be publishing my article in its next issue on the November 16, 1996 fall of the Russian Mars 96 space probe with it a half-pound of plutonium on Chile and Bolivia (no, it didn't fall "harmlessly" in the Pacific as early press accounts claimed). An extensive op-ed piece by me on this was published on December 18, l996 in The Baltimore Sun. This month's edition of Extra! Update (published by the media monitoring group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) will feature my analysis of the lack of press coverage of the fall of the probe on Chile and Bolivia (as compared to the burst of attention when President Clinton advised Australian Prime Minister Howard that it was falling on Australia and offered Australia the "assets" of the U.S. Department of Energy to deal with any radioactive contamination, in comparison to the lack of comparable assistance to Chile and Bolivia). The piece is titled: "Racism Meets Spacism, What If Deadly Plutonium Fell on Your Country -- and No One Cared?"

Also, Project Censored at Sonoma State University will next month announce that my journalism on the use of nuclear power in space involved the "most under-reported," indeed "most-censored" stories of 1996 -- the fourth year my pieces on the use of nuclear power in space have been cited by Project Censored.

There is a great continued push by those in back of the move to use nuclear power in space to cover up the issue. Those in back of the endeavor include, most importantly, the U.S. military. As the recent U.S. Air Force's Scientific Advisory Board report, "New World Vistas," declares, the U.S. Air Force "must invest in technologies for high-powered generation such as space nuclear power" as it moves into space, which is described by the military in numerous recent military "doctrine" documents to be included in THE WRONG STUFF as "the ultimate high ground" from which to dominate below.

I hope the replies below will help you in dealing with the continued -- and as the launch date for Cassini nears the probably even more stepped up -- nukes-in-space cover-up.

1. "The fuel that powers our deep space probes in plutonium-238 dioxide which has a half life of 86 years. It must not be confused with the more generally thought of weapons-grade compound containing plutonium-239, which has a significantly longer half life of 24,360 years (and not 200,000 years as was mentioned in your letter.)"

The issue is not confusion between plutonium-238 and plutonium-239. Plutonium-238 is not fissile, it is not the stuff of which atomic bombs are made. No one ever said it was. That's the good news.

Now the bad news. Plutonium-238 is used in space systems as a source of electrical power precisely because of its difference to plutonium-239. Unlike plutonium-239 which has a half-life of 24,500 years, plutonium-238 has a half-life of 87.8 years. Its quicker decay rate means that it it physically hot -- as a result of its relatively rapid decay. That heat is coupled in what the U.S. calls a "radioisotope thermal generator" acronymed RTG (long manufactured by General Electric, now by Lockheed Martin since its takeover of GE's Aerospace Division) to produce electricity. As a result of its shorter half-life and quicker decay, it is also 280 times more radioactive than plutonium-239.

The problem with any isotope of plutonium is the stuff being inhaled. Indeed, the alpha rays from plutonium can be blocked by very little, a piece of paper, for example. However, a particle of plutonium inhaled into the lung, because plutonium is not water soluble, won't dissolve so gets lodged in the lung emitting radiation -- with plutonium-238 doing it at a rate 280 times more >than plutonium-239.

Moreover, it takes very little plutonium to cause a health problem. A famous series of tests with beagle dogs done after World War II concluded that less than a millionth of a gram of plutonium could cause fatal lung cancer.

This is why Dr. Helen Caldicott, president emeritus of Physicians for Social Responsibility, has long said that plutonium is "so toxic that less than one millionth of a gram is a carcinogenic dose. One pound, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on Earth." (Her book NUCLEAR MADNESS, Page 81 is one cite.)

Plutonium is a heavy metal and if there would be a catastrophic nuclear plant accident, it wouldn't spread too far. (Plutonium-239 is built up as a by-product of fission in a nuclear plant.) But in the scenario of a space probe breaking up in the atmosphere spreading plutonium far and wide (and this has occurred), the dosages of plutonium to life are maximized.

2. "The so-called 'one hit theory' (where supposedly even a single molecule of a presumed carcinogen, as suggested in this case plutonium, is enough to initiate cancer) remains an unsettled controversy in the field of toxiclogy. A review of the well-known 1972 National Center for Toxicological Research's test of aminoacetyl flourene on a large population of mice (a study performed to shed some light on the controversy) by the Society of Toxicology concluded that '...linear (one hit theory) not fit the data and non-linear models which often suggest practical thresholds provide a better expression of observed responses.' (Reference: Re-examination of the ED01 Study, Fundamental and Applied Toxicology, 1981.)"

Sure, there are scientists arguing on both sides of the radioactivity impact issue. I trust the independent scientists, not the many in the pay of the government or corporate nuclear establishment, for objective information on this.

Meanwhile, abundantly clear through the years is that levels of radioactivity once considered safe, below what had once been called a "threshold," in fact do cause illness and death.

And what is most important in terms of nuclear space undertakings is that huge numbers of people stand to be made guinea pigs on this issue. For example, NASA's FINAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT REPORT FOR THE CASSINI MISSION speaks of the consequences if there is what NASA terms an "inadvertent reentry" of the Cassini space probe when it is to do a "flyby" of the Earth in 1999.

Some background: plutonium is not used in a propulsion source on space devices but just in these radioisotope thermal generators (RTG's) to provide a small amount of electricitry to run instruments (745 watts for Cassini). On Cassini, the power from the conventional chemically-powered rocket that propels it cannot take it directly from the Earth to its destination of Saturn. So NASA intends after Cassini's launch to head it to Venus, circle Venus twice and then have it come hurtling back at the Earth for a high-speed (42,000 miles per hour) low-level (312 mile high) "flyby." The aim is to use Earth's gravity to increase the velocity of Cassini so it can get to Saturn. But after a billion miles in space, if there is a miscalculation and Cassini comes in too low and there is what NASA calls an "inadverent reentry" into the Earth's 75 mile-high atmosphere causing Cassini to break up and the plutonium to be released, the NASA FINAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT says that "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." (Page 4-76) (You might want to get this amazing document from NASA, Solar System Exploration Division, Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. 20546.)

As to the death toll from that, NASA says it would be several thousand cancer deaths. However, Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, using NASA's own data from its report, says that NASA "underestimates the cancer alone by about 2,000 to 4,000 times." He projects l0 to 20 million deaths "not counting all other causes of death," infant mortality, etc., which he says could mean the toll "may be as high as 30 to 40 million people." And that's NASA's data he's working from -- independent data would most likely easier enlarge the base. Do we want to further determine the lethality of plutonium using most of the world's population in the experiment?

3. Regarding past launch failures involving radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG's), they have been previously reported with no loss material to the environment. These devices are specifically designed for and have successfully survived catastrophic launch failures in the past. Experience does not support your contention that, ' an explosion during launch would have showered plutonium over South Florida...' .''

Reply: As to NASA's claim of there being "no loss material to the environment" in prior RTG flights, this is -- to put it bluntly -- a lie. On April 2l, l964, the SNAP-9A plutonium-fueled RTG on board the Transit 5BN-3 navigational satellite fell, with the satellite, to Earth, disintegrating in the atmosphere as it plummeted and releasing its 2.1 pounds of plutonium.

According to a report entitled "Emergency Preparedness for Nuclear-Powered Satellites" prepared by Europe's Organization for Economic Cooperation Nuclear Energy Agency and the Swedish National Institute of Radiation Protection in 1989, the plutonium from SNAP-9A "dispersed worldwide" (indeed, NASA had the RTG designed to do that so as to spread the plutonium globally in the event of an accident rather than have it all come down on one portion of the Earth, the report notes).

"A worldwide soil sampling program carried out in 1970 showed SNAP-9A debris to be present at all continents and at all latitudes," said the report.

Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, has long linked the SNAP-9A accident with an increased level of lung cancer on Earth.

As for Cassini, NASA has thankfully not actually designed it to break up in the atmosphere in the event of an accident -- and the plutonium to spread as vapor or respirable particles, which is how, again, plutonium kills.

But NASA admits that will likely be the cause in its FINAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT. On Page 4-5l of the document, NASA states that "for all the reentry cases studied, about 32 to 34 percent of the fuel from the three RTGs is expected to be released at high altitude...Based on this analysis and the expected initial particle size distribution of the fuel, the particle size distribution of the fuel released during reentry was calculated as a function of the reentry angle. The fraction of the fuel particles released during reentry estimated to be reduced to vapor or respirable particles less than l0 microns ranges from 66 percent for very shallow reenetries (8 degrees) to about 20 percent for steep (90 degree) reentries." So we are talking here of several pounds of plutonium (and, incidentally, the 72.3 pounds of plutonium to be used on Cassini is the largest amount ever used on a space device) being dispersed, NASA admits, and as "vapor or respirable particles."

As for plutonium not being released during an explosion on launch, NASA hopes this is the case. But we only have to look for a parallel at a recent launch accident, the January 17 blow-up of a Delta rocket at the Cape Canaveral Air Station (near to where Cassini is supposed to be launched in October).

In the explosion which occurred 13 seconds after launch a cloud formed of toxic chemicals including nitrogen tetroxide and monomethylhydrazine, both acknowledged in NASA documents as "deadly if a person comes into contact" with them. The cloud floated out to sea, then back to land and then south along Florida's East Coast. Residents as far south as Vero Beach, 100 miles away, were told by the Air Force to stay inside, close all doors and windows and turn off air conditioning and heating units to avoid contact with vapor from the toxic cloud.

Accidents involving space devices happen -- with regularity. Factor in nuclear material and you're speaking of potentially colossal catastrophic accidents.

John Pike, director of the Space Policy Project at the Federation of American Scientists, says the odds of that Delta II launch blow-up was one-in-20 which, he says, is the same odds as for an explosion on launch of Cassini with its 72.3 pounds of plutonium.

Oh, as for the "shielding" of the plutonium on Cassini, Dr. Horst Poehler, for 22 years a scientist for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center, says it's "fingernail thin...a joke," but 3/l28ths of an inch of iridium alloy, some graphite, some foil. He says that a Cassini accident involving the dispersal of its record-high amount of plutonium stands to be "the mother of all accidents."

4. "RTG's are used for civilian deep space probes where solar energy is too diffuse to be used (beyond the orbit of Mars). Solar cells are the predominant power source for spacecraft and are replaced by RTG's only in those relatively few missions where solar cell use would be impractical."

Reply: Perhaps the most outrageous aspect of all this is that the huge danger of using nuclear power on space devices is not necessary. Before the l989 Galileo flight, NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory people insisted that there could be no substitute than to use RTGs with their 50 pounds of plutonium on that mission to Jupiter. Indeed, this was sworn to in a federal court cases brought by the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice and others to stop Galileo.

And yes, it was pointed out then that there had been 24 U.S. nuclear space missions previously. Not stressed, however, were the failures: and SNAP-9A was not the only one. There was the SNAP-19 accident in which an RTG with 4.2 pounds of plutonium fell into the Pacific off California on May 18, 1968 right after launch; it was retreived. Then there was the SNAP-27 with 8.3 pounds of plutonium that was aboard the ill-fated Apollo 13 flight. The book on which the blockbuster film is based, LOST MOON, co-authored by Apollo Commander Jim Lovell, spends three pages on the great concern about not only the three astronauts ending up as toast but also the SNAP-27 disintegrating in the desperate return back to Earth. (This was noticeably absent from the film. An executive of the production company that made the movie told me the nuclear portion of the Apollo l3 story was ommitted as an "artistic decision.")

"On the surface of the moon," the book relates. "the tiny generator posed no danger to anybody" and now it "was on its way home, heading for just the fiery reentry the doomsayers had feared." The LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) that the RTG was left on was targeted, notes LOST MOON, to a "spot off New Zealand" where, NASA claims, it fell on November 14, l970 without releasing plutonium and now, still in the ocean (but in an area too deep for recovery), NASA says in its official listing of its launches of nuclear materials, it remains "effectively isolated from man's environment." The ocean isolated from peoples' environment? Cassini will be another round of this game of spaceborne nuclear Russian roulette.

Back to the safe alternative to using nuclear material in space: the SNAP-9A accident spurred NASA to use solar power on satellites (which is how satellites are powered today). Indeed, NASA became a pioneer in the development of photovoltaic solar power.

But NASA stuck to plutonium on deep space probes, including Galileo and now Cassini. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request two years before the Galileo launch in l989 asking for government data on alternatives to plutonium power on Galileo. I was stonewalled for two years. Then, a few weeks after the launch, I finally get the material: solar would have been quite possible.

As one NASA-funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory analysis declared: "Based on the current study, it appears that a Galileo Jupiter orbiting mission could be performed with a concentrated photovoltaic solar array power source without changing the mission sequence or impacting science objectives." NASA had lied in the debate before the Galileo launch about the need to use plutonium on that mission.

Meanwhile, in 1994, the European Space Agency announced a "technology milestone" -- development by it of new high-performance silicon solar cells with 25 percent efficiency that could "profitably be used in deep space missions," it said in its press release. The newspaper Florida Today spoke to ESA physicist Carla Signorini in 1995 and she said that "if given the money to do the work, within five years [ESA] could have solar cells ready to power a space mission to Saturn."

Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York, says that there is "no question" that solar power and long-life fuel cells would be able to provide the small amount of electricity on Cassini that is to be produced by the plutonium system.

But NASA, the DOE's national nuclear laboratories, the corporations that have been involved in producing nuclear hardware for space missions and the U.S. military seek to use nuclear power in space.

"Without reactors in orbit [there is] going to be a long, long light cord that goes down to the surface of the Earth" bringing up power, declared Lt. General James Abrahamson, head of the Stategic Defense Initiative Organization, at the Fifth Annual Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion in Albuquerque in 1988. "Failure to develop nuclear power in space could cripple efforts to deploy anti-missile sensors and weapons in orbit."

That notion, that nuclear power is essential to the military using "the ultimate high ground" -- space -- continues today in the U.S. military. In September the Clinton administration announced a plan to develop nuclear-propelled rockets for military and civilian uses. (A whole chapter in THE WRONG STUFF is on the military space nuclear area -- intimately tied into the purportedly civilian activity.)

Held recently was the Fourteenth Annual Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion, again in Albuquerque, jointly sponsored by NASA, DOE and the Pentagon's Defense Special Weapons Agency.

(Among the presentations at it: scientists from Brookhaven National Laboratory outlined their plan to rocket high-level nuclear waste into space -- as long as there is no accident on launch causing the high-level nuclear waste to douse the Earth.)

One last thing, in terms of odds of space accidents happening, NASA is, as Dr. Kaku charges, making up the numbers. I learned this when I first got into this issue. After reading the 1985 report on two planned launches of shuttles to carry plutonium-fueled space probes, I used the Freedom of Information Act to ask about accident consequences. It took nine months to get the info (I've never had such trouble using FOIA as I've had on the nukes-in-space issue) and when it came NASA acknowledged disaster was possible if the plutonium was released but insisted that shuttles were "highly reliable" and that the odds of a catastrophic shuttle accident were one-in-l00,000.

Right after the Challenger blew up, NASA drastically altered those odds to one-in-76, where they are today. In science, one only really knows probabilities through empirical evidence, through extensive experimentation.

The physicist Richard Feynmann, on the commission that investigated the Challenger accident, ended up blasting the NASA oddsmaking system. "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled," he wrote in his book covering that experience, WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK? He also wrote a paragraph away: "NASA owes it to the citizens whom it asks for support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources." (The cost of the Cassini mission: $3.4 billion.)

If readers would like more information on the nuclear and weapons in space issue, please call the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space at 352-468-3295 or E-mail the Network (based at the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice) at

The European Space Agency is partners with NASA on Cassini, indeed part of the cost of Cassini comes from the European member nations of ESA.

I would be glad to present the video NUKES IN SPACE to any group, at press conferences, etc., and speak on the issue. (The video received the WorldFest Gold Award at the Houston International Film and Video Festival, the biggest film and video festival in the world.) Connect with me at the above E-mail address.

A good World Wide Web site on Cassini is:

Europe could, of course, be impacted as easily as was Chile and Bolivia when the Mars space probe and its half-pound of plutonium came down on those nations, looking to eyewitnesses as a fireball and, it is now suspected, vaporizing the plutonium as it crashed. As Pike of the Federation of American Scientists says: "If you liked Mars 96, you'd love Cassini."

And, after Cassini -- unless there is a stop put to what Bruce Gagnon accurately describes as this "sheer and utter madness" of nuclearizing and weaponizing space -- there would be more and more of it. Catastrophe is inevitably ahead.

Thus the big effort to stop the madness now. And the heavy resistance.

A Response by Karl Grossman.

Published online with permission of the author.
This article has been presented on the World Wide Web by:

The Animated Software Company
Mail to:
Last modified September 6th, 1997.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman