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Obama brings back space nuclear power

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Karl Grossman

The Obama administration is seeking to renew the use of nuclear power in space. It is calling for revived production by the US of plutonium-238 for use in space devices -despite solar energy having become a substitute for plutonium power in space. And the Obama administration appears to also want to revive the decade-sold and long-discredited scheme of nuclear-powered rockets -despite strides made in new ways of propelling spacecraft.

In May, Japan launched what it called its space yacht which is now heading to Venus propelled by solar sails utilizing ionized particles emitted by the sun. "Because of the frictionless environment, such a craft should be able to speed up until it is traveling many times faster than a conventional rocket-powered craft," wrote Agence France-Presse about this spacecraft launched May 21.

But the Obama administration would return to using nuclear power in space despite its enormous dangers.

A cheerleader for this is the space industry publication Space News. "Going Nuclear" was the headline of its editorial on March 1 praising the administration for its space nuclear thrust. Space News declared that "for the second year in a row, the Obama administration is asking Congress for at least US$30 million to begin a multiyear effort to restart domestic production of plutonium-238, the essential ingredient in long-lasting spacecraft batteries."

The Space News editorial also noted "President Obama's NASA budget [for 2011] also includes support for nuclear thermal propulsion and nuclear electric propulsion research under a US$650 million Exploration Technology and Demonstration funding line projected to triple by 2013."

Space News declared: "Nuclear propulsion research experienced a brief revival seven years ago when then-NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe established Project Prometheus to design reactor-powered spacecraft. Mr. O'Keefe's successor, Mike Griffin, wasted little time pulling the plug on NASA's nuclear ambitions."

Being referred to by Space News, as "spacecraft batteries" are what are called radioisotope thermoelectric generators or RTGs, power systems using plutonium- 238 to provide on board electricity on various space devices including, originally, on satellites.

But this came to an end when in 1964 a U.S. Navy navigational satellite with a SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) RTG on-board failed to achieve orbit and fell to the Earth, disintegrating upon hitting the atmosphere. The 2.1 pounds (1 pound is 453.6 grams) of plutonium fuel dispersed widely. A study by a group of European health and radiation protection agencies subsequently reported that "a worldwide soil sampling program carried out in 1970 showed SNAP-9A debris present at all continents and at all latitudes." Long linking the SNAP-9A accident to an increase of lung cancer in people on Earth was Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, who was involved in isolating plutonium for the Manhattan Project.

The SNAP-9A accident caused NASA to turn to using solar photovoltaic panels on satellites. All U.S. satellites are now solar-powered.

But NASA persisted in using RTGs on space probes -claiming there was no choice. This was a false claim. Although NASA, for instance, insisted -including in sworn court depositions- that it had no alternative but to use RTGs on its 1989, documents I subsequently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from NASA included a study done by its Jet Propulsion Laboratory stating that solar photovoltaic panels could have substituted for plutonium-fueled RTGs.

And right now, the Juno space probe which will get its on board electricity only from solar photovoltaic panels is being readied by NASA for a launch next year to Jupiter. It's to make 32 orbits around Jupiter and perform a variety of scientific missions.

Meanwhile, in recent years facilities in the U.S. to produce plutonium-238 -hotspots for worker contamination and environmental pollution- have been closed and the US has been obtaining the radionuclide from Russia. Under the Obama 2011 budget, US production would be restarted. Last year, Congress refused to go along with this Obama request.

Source and contact: Karl Grossman