Media coverage of the Perseverance rover mission fails to report that NASA projected fair odds of lethal plutonium being released by accident, writes Karl Grossman.
WITH ALL the media hoopla last week about the Perseverance rover, frequently unreported was that its energy source is plutonium - considered the most lethal of all radioactive substances - and nowhere in media that National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) projected one-in-960 odds of the plutonium being released in an accident on the mission.
Says Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space:
Indeed, big-money lotteries have odds far higher than one-in-960 and routinely people win those lotteries.
Further, NASA's Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the U.S.$3.7 billion (AU$4.8 billion) mission acknowledges that an "alternative" power source for Perseverance could have been solar energy. Solar energy using photovoltaic panels has been the power source for a succession of Mars rovers.
For an accident releasing plutonium on the Perseverance launch - and one in 100 rockets undergo major malfunctions upon launch, mostly by blowing up - NASA, in its SEIS, described these impacts for the area around Cape Canaveral under a heading 'Impacts of Radiological Releases on the Environment'.
NASA was compelled to make disclosures about the odds of an accident releasing plutonium, alternatives to using nuclear power on the Perseverance and consequences of a plutonium release, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Meanwhile, the U.S. is now producing large amounts of plutonium-238, the plutonium isotope used for space missions. The U.S. stopped producing plutonium-238 in 1988 and began obtaining it from Russia, however that is no longer happening. A series of NASA space shots using plutonium-238 are planned for coming years.
Plutonium-238 is 280 times more radioactive than plutonium-239, the plutonium isotope used in atomic bombs and as a "trigger" in hydrogen bombs.
There are 10.6 pounds (4.8 kilograms) of plutonium-238 on Perseverance.
We might have dodged a plutonium bullet on the Perseverance mission. The Atlas V rocket carrying it was launched without blowing up. And the rocket didn't fall back from orbit with Perseverance and its plutonium-238 disintegrating on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere and plutonium dispersed.
But with NASA planning more space missions involving nuclear power, including developing nuclear-powered rockets for trips to Mars and launching rockets carrying nuclear reactors for placement on the Moon and Mars, space-based nuclear Russian roulette is at hand.
The acknowledgement that 'an accident resulting in the release of plutonium dioxide from the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) occurs with a probability of one-in-960' is made repeatedly in the SEIS.
The amount of electricity produced by the MMRTG on Perseverance is minuscule - some 100 watts, similar to a light bulb.
A solar alternative to the use of plutonium on the mission is addressed at the start of the SEIS in a 'Description and Comparison of Alternatives' section.
First is 'Alternative 1', which proposes that the rover use a plutonium-fueled MMRTG:
That is followed by 'Alternative 2', which states:
The worst U.S. accident involving the use of nuclear power in space came in 1964 when the U.S. satellite Transit 5BN-3, powered by a Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power (S.N.A.P.-9A) plutonium-fueled radioisotope thermoelectric generator, failed to achieve orbit and fell from the sky. It broke apart as it burned up in the atmosphere.
That accident was long-linked by Dr John Gofman, Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, to a spike in global lung cancer rates where plutonium was spread. NASA, after the S.N.A.P.-9A accident, became a pioneer in developing solar photovoltaic power. All U.S. satellites now are energised by solar power, as is the International Space Station.
The worst accident involving nuclear power in space in the Soviet/Russian space program occurred in 1978 when the Kosmos 954 satellite with a nuclear reactor aboard fell from orbit and spread radioactive debris over a 373-mile (600-kilometre) swath from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake in Canada. There were 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of highly-enriched uranium fuel on Kosmos 954.
I first began writing widely about the use of nuclear power in space 35 years ago when I broke the story in The Nation magazine about how the next mission of the ill-fated shuttle Challenger was to loft the Ulysses space probe fueled with 24.2 pounds (11 kilograms) of plutonium-238 (to conduct orbits around the sun).
If the Challenger had blown up on that mission (scheduled for May 1986) instead of blowing up on 28 January 1986 and the plutonium released, it would not have been six astronauts and teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe dying but many more people.
Pursuing the issue, I authored the books The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear Threat to Our Planet and Weapons In Space. I also wrote and presented the TV documentary Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens and other TV programs. And I have written many hundreds of articles on this subject.
The absence of media reporting on the Perseverance Mars rover, of the dangers involving the nuclear material on it and the chances of that plutonium being dispersed, is not new.
In The Wrong Stuff, I include a section: 'The Space Con Job'.
I quote extensively from an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review after the Challenger accident by contributing editor Christopher Hanson (under the pseudonym William Boot) titled 'From NASA and the Spellbound Press'.
He found "gullibility" in the press and said:
Also in The Wrong Stuff, I wrote about an address, 'Science and the Media', by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times space reporter John Noble Wilford in 1990 at Brookhaven National Laboratory. In it, Wilford declared: "I am particularly intrigued by science and scientists... My favourite subject is planetary science".
After his talk, I interviewed Wilford and he acknowledged that:
On NBC's Today show, the attitude of the reporters was as celebratory on the morning of the landing as the label of the video aired -'Jubilation at NASA Control'. Never was there a mention of nuclear power or plutonium or the acknowledged risks of an accident and dispersal of plutonium.
About this, Global Network's Bruce Gagnon states:
Gagnon's Maine-based international organisation has been challenging the use of nuclear power and the deployment of weapons in space since its formation in 1922. The U.S. has favoured nuclear power as an energy source for space-based weapons.
Gagnon further declares: