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Obama Seeks to Revive Space Nuclear Power

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Despite its huge dangers, the Obama administration is seeking to revive the use of nuclear power in space. It wants the U.S. to produce the plutonium isotope that has been used for electric generation in space and is also looking to build nuclear-propelled rockets for missions to Mars...

Plutonium-238 has been used to generate electricity on space probes and rovers and also satellites. But in 1964 a satellite with a plutonium-fueled generator, after failing to achieve orbit, fell to Earth, breaking up as it hit the atmosphere and dispersing 2.1 pounds of Pu-238 from its SNAP -- (for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) 9A system. A study by a group of European health and radiation protection agencies reported that "a worldwide soil sampling program in 1970 showed SNAP-9A debris present at all continents and at all latitudes." Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, long linked that fall-out to an increase of lung cancer on Earth. The accident caused NASA to pioneer the use of solar panels on satellites.

NASA still used Pu-238 for space probes claiming there was no alternative -- even when there was. For example, NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) insisted, including in court testimony, that there was no choice but plutonium power on the Galileo mission to Jupiter launched in 1989. Subsequently, through the Freedom of Information Act, I obtained a study done by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory finding that solar panels could have worked. Currently, NASA is preparing to send its Juno space probe to Jupiter next year -- and it's to get all its on board electricity from solar panels. Rovers have also used solar panels.

Still, in a report titled "Start-up Plan for Plutonium-238 Production for Radioisotope Power Systems" just sent to Congress, the DOE, noting it was acting "consistent with the President's request," is calling for a return of Pu-238 production by the U.S.

Nine space missions which DOE says need Pu-238-generated electricity are listed. This includes the Mars Science Laboratory, the name given to a rover to be launched in November, and other missions to the Moon, Mars and other planets through 2030.

The report proposes that Pu-238 be produced at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory. "DOE's preliminary cost range estimate to implement this Pu-238 production scheme is $75-90 million," it says. The total for the fiscal year 2011 is $30 million. Facilities in the U.S. for making plutonium-238 have been closed and the nation since 1992 has been purchasing it from Russia. The processing of plutonium-238, an especially hot variant of plutonium, itself the most toxic radioactive substance known, led to worker contamination and environmental pollution here.

The notion of nuclear-powered rockets goes back more than a half century. Starting in the 1950s, there was a program called NERVA (for Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) followed by Projects Pluto, Rover and Poodle. No nuclear rocket ever flew, although billions of dollars were spent. There were worries about an atomic rocket blowing up on launch or crashing back to Earth. During the Reagan presidency there was development of the "Timberwind" nuclear-powered rocket for lofting heavy equipment for the "Star Wars" space weapons program and also for trips to Mars. NASA in 2003 began Project Prometheus to build nuclear rockets but canceled it three years later.

Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and Marine major general appointed NASA administrator by Obama, favors nuclear-powered rockets -- specifically a design of Franklin Chang-Diaz, a fellow ex-astronaut.

Bolden acknowledges public opposition to nuclear rockets. In an address before the Council on Foreign Relations on May 24, he said "most people... in the United States are never going to agree to allow nuclear rockets to launch things from Earth." He proposed instead having a nuclear rocket launched conventionally and then in space moving with atomic energy. "If we can convince people that we can contain it and not put masses of people in jeopardy, nuclear propulsion for in-space propulsion" would make, stressed Bolden, for a faster trip to Mars. Chang-Diaz's ion engine, he said, "would enable us to go from Earth to Mars in a matter of some time significantly less than it takes us now."

Having nuclear systems activated only after space devices were in orbit was the procedure of the Soviet Union -- because of having undergone many launch pad explosions. That didn't help, however, when a satellite, Cosmos 954, with an on board atomic reactor activated only after launch, fell from orbit in 1978, disintegrating and spreading radioactive debris over 124,000 square miles of the Northwest Territories of Canada.

Obama, in a speech on "Space Exploration in the 2lst Century" at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, avoided saying nuclear rocket when he declared "we will increase investment... in groundbreaking technologies that will allow astronauts to reach space sooner and more often, to travel farther and faster" and by 2025 "we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space."

"I want to repeat this," he added. "Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies."

But U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who was on the platform with Obama and introduced by him at the start of the speech, appeared on Hardball With Chris Matthews later that day and spoke of nuclear rockets as what's needed -- specifically the Chang-Diaz design. "One of my crewmates," noted Nelson, a member of the Senate Science and Transportation Committee who flew as a passenger on a shuttle flight in 1986 with Chang-Diaz, "is developing a plasma rocket that would take us to Mars in 39 days."

Meanwhile, the trade publication Space News, in a March 1 editorial -- "Going Nuclear" -- applauded the Obama 2011 proposed budget for not only having $30 million in it for Pu-238 production but because it:

...also includes support for nuclear thermal propulsion and nuclear electric propulsion research under a $650 million ExplorationTechnology and Demonstration funding line projected to triple by 2013.

After leaving NASA in 2005, Chang-Diaz founded the Ad Astra Rocket Company of which he is president and CEO. In an interview with Seed.com last year, he said: "People have fears of nuclear power in space, but it's a fear that isn't really based on any organized and clear assessment of the true risks and costs."

As with Pu-238-generated electricity, alternative ways for powering spacecraft are being developed. In May, Japan launched what it called a "space yacht," now on its way to Venus, powered by solar sails which make use of ionized particles emitted by the Sun.
But the Obama administration would turn to nuclear power in space -- and on Earth.
We have been seeing -- for two months now -- the damage of technology run amok in the Gulf of Mexico. Consider the consequences of dangerous, expensive, unnecessary nuclear-powered technology running amok above our heads.

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