A New View on New Horizon

What if something went wrong with the INL's pride and joy?


"The INL is at it again, but this time they are working on a project that doesn't just affect our town," declared a June 10 newscast by the Idaho Falls station KIFI-TV. "Who would have thought that a place in little Southeast Idaho would help make the power system that pushes a spacecraft to Pluto?"

Indeed, for the first time, Idaho National Laboratory has prepared a plutonium-fueled Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) for use on a space mission: NASA's New Horizons shot. On January 11, the window opened for a launch of a rocket from Florida, lofting New Horizons fitted with the RTG worked on and shipped out from INL with 24 pounds of plutonium fuel. But KIFI-TV--and INL--would be far from proud if there were an accident, and plutonium, considered the most deadly radioactive substance, were dispersed.

NASA, in its "Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission," says the odds of an accidental release of plutonium "for the overall mission is estimated to be approximately 1 in 300." If that happens, people will die. A person need breathe in only the tiniest particle of plutonium--a millionth of a gram--to receive a fatal dose.

The plutonium has nothing to do with powering the New Horizons space probe. The probe is to move through space powered by conventional chemical fuel once it separates from the Atlas rocket that lofts it. The plutonium and the RTG are to provide on-board electricity for the probe's instruments--a mere 180 watts--when it gets to its destination of Pluto. But until the probe leaves the rocket and breaks from the Earth's gravitational pull, the plutonium is a threat to life on Earth.

Here, the federal government intends to "launch one of the most deadly materials on the planet on a rocket into space, but they don't seem to know plutonium is a boomerang, and it always comes back to bite you," comments Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Snake River Alliance.

NASA has divided into four phases the sequence preceding what it terms "escape" of the probe from the Earth's gravity and flight on to Pluto. In the most deadly scenario, plutonium is released in a launch accident, when it could could drift 62 miles from the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, says NASA. "A portion" of the plutonium, it says, could go well beyond that. Indeed, "two-thirds of the estimated radiological consequences would occur within the global population."

That's because fine particles of the plutonium could become well mixed in the atmosphere and spread in a band around the Earth between latitudes 20 and 30 degrees north. That takes in parts of the Caribbean, North Africa, the Mideast, India, China and all of Mexico and Texas.

Life elsewhere on Earth could be also affected if the plutonium-fueled probe launches, but falls back to Earth before its "escape."

An "enormous disaster" could result if plutonium is released, says Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The issue is how much plutonium is dispersed in respirable particles, he explains. "The problem is it takes so little plutonium," he says.

NASA estimates the cost to decontaminate land on which the plutonium falls would range from "about $241 million to $1.3 billion per square mile." But compensation would be subject to the Price-Anderson Act, a U.S. law that caps how much people can collect for property damage, illnesses and death from a "nuclear incident." The limit is currently $10 billion.

But the cap for damages from a "nuclear incident occurring outside the U.S. shall not exceed $100 million," the law stipulates. So people in foreign countries would be restricted to $100 million in compensation. This is in violation of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the basic international law on space--which the U.S. was central in drafting--which declares, "states shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects."

Citing these concerns, the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space ( demanded prior to the launch that the New Horizons mission be cancelled. Bruce Gagnon, the group's coordinator, says "one thing we know is that space technology can and does fail and when you mix deadly plutonium into the equation, you are asking for catastrophe. NASA, he charges, is "playing nuclear Russian roulette with the public."

With NASA planning a series of additional launches of plutonium-fueled space probes, and, under its $3 billion Prometheus project, seeking to build and launch atomic-powered rockets, accidents releasing nuclear materials into the environment are inevitable.

Indeed, accidents have already happened in the U.S. space nuclear program. Of the 25 U.S. space missions using plutonium fuel, three have undergone mishaps, admits the NASA EIS on New Horizons. The worst occurred in 1964 and involved the SNAP-9A RTG with 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel. It was to provide electricity to a satellite that failed to achieve orbit and dropped to Earth. The RTG disintegrated in the fall, spreading plutonium widely. Release of that plutonium caused an increase in global lung cancer rates, according to Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley.

After the SNAP-9A accident, NASA pioneered the development of solar energy in space. Now all satellites--and the International Space Station--are solar-powered.

But NASA continues to use on plutonium power for space probes--even as the solar-powered Rosetta space probe, launched this year by NASA's counterpart, the European Space Agency now heads for a rendezvous with a comet near Jupiter.

Along with the U.S. military, which for decades has been planning for the deployment of nuclear-energized weapons in space, NASA seeks wider uses of atomic power above our heads, and it promotes it even as new technologies are being developed to propel space probes and rockets through space. For instance, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California has been studying sending a space probe to Pluto propelled by solar sails--making use of the charged ions from the sun to move it through space.

Gagnon says his organization is "building opposition to New Horizons and all missions that launch nuclear power in space. The public needs to know more about this issue and we need the grassroots to pressure Congress and NASA and others responsible. We say that NASA should be developing alternative, non-nuclear power sources for space travel."

Furthermore, Gagnon says, "INL's expanding mission of processing plutonium will also mean that it will expanding 'opportunities' for local contamination. Show me any site where DOE has process plutonium that hasn't suffered contamination."

Maxand says: "We have seen how the government places a higher priority on plutonium than people, and we will fight against the production of this poison in Idaho to the end."

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, authored The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear Threat To Our Planet (Common Courage Press) and wrote and narrated the TV documentary Nukes In Space.