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Karl Grossman

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The Deadly Folly of Nuclear Power Overhead

Posted: 04/12/2012 1:55 pm

The crash last week of a U.S. drone on the Seychelles Islands-- the second crash of a U.S. drone on Seychelles in four months -- underlines the deadly folly of a plan of U.S. national laboratory scientists and the Northrop Grumman Corp. for nuclear-powered drones.

The use of nuclear power on U.S. drones was "favorably assessed by scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and the Northrop Grumman Corp.," revealed Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists last month.

Sandia's report said that "use of these technologies" could provide "system performance unparalleled by existing technologies." It acknowledged, however, that "current political conditions will not allow use of the results."

Just consider if the drones that crashed on the Seychelles used nuclear power -- and the impacts if the radioactive fuel they contained was released -- or if the drones had crashed elsewhere, in Somalia, for instance, providing nuclear material to those who might want to make a "dirty bomb."

Although the nuclear-powered drone scheme is ostensibly not going anywhere now, other schemes to use nuclear power overhead -- which also threaten nuclear disaster -- are on the planning table and some are moving ahead.

These include:

  • A new U.S. Air Force plan which supports "nuclear powered flight." Titled Energy Horizons, issued in January, it states that "nuclear energy has been demonstrated on several satellite systems" and "this source provides consistent power... at a much higher energy and power density than current technologies." It does admit that "the implementation of such a technology should be weighed heavily against potential catastrophic outcomes." Indeed, the worst accident involving a U.S. space nuclear system occurred with the fall to Earth in 1964 of a satellite powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator or RTG, the SNAP-9A. It failed to achieve orbit and fell to Earth, disintegrating upon hitting the atmosphere causing its Plutonium-238 fuel to be dispersed as dust. Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California, Berkeley, long linked the SNAP-9A accident to a global rise in lung cancer.
  • "A ground-breaking Russian nuclear space travel propulsion system will be ready by 2017 and will power a ship capable of long-haul interplanetary missions by 2025," the Russian state news agency, Ria Novosti, reported last week. The worst accident involving a Soviet or Russian nuclear space system was the fall from orbit in 1978 of the Cosmos 954 satellite powered by a nuclear reactor. It also broke up in the atmosphere spreading radioactive debris which scattered over 77,000 square miles of the Northwest Territories of Canada.
  • The U.S. is moving again to produce Plutonium-238 for space use. RTGs powered by Plutonium-238 had been used by the U.S. as a source of electricity on satellites -- as the Energy Horizons noted. But that was until the SNAP-9A accident which caused a shift to generating electricity with solar photovoltaic panels. However, RTGs using Plutonium-238 have remained a source of on board electricity for space probes.
  • The Department of Energy plans to produce Plutonium-238 at both Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratories.
  • The U.S. is also developing nuclear-powered rockets. Ad Astra, headed by former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, is working on what it calls a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket or VASMIR to be powered by a nuclear reactor. It would provide a "faster trip" to Mars, says Chang-Diaz, according to a Voice of America article last year, could be used "for missions to the International Space Station or to retrieve or position satellites in Earth orbit."

Challenging what is going on is the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power
in Space. Bruce Gagnon, its coordinator, comments: "Who can deny that the nuclear power industry isn't working overtime to spread its deadly product onto every possible military application? The recent disclosure that the Pentagon has been strongly considering sticking nuclear engines on-board drones is dangerously 'more of the same.'"

"Nuclear-powered devices flying around on drones or on-board rockets that frequently blow up on launch is pure insanity," says Gagnon. "The people need to push back hard."

What is happening has deep roots. A key rationale by Sandia and Northrop Grumman for nuclear-powered drones was, as the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported last week, long -- very long -- flight times. The same rationale, noted Gagnon, was behind the U.S. development in the 1940s and '50s of nuclear-propelled bombers. The strategy was for these nuclear-powered bombers to stay up in the air for extensive periods of time.

A subsequent program linking nuclear power and weapons was "Star Wars" under President Reagan. It was "predicated," as Gagnon notes, "on nuclear power in space." Reactors were to provide the energy on orbiting battle platforms for lasers, hypervelocity guns and particle beam weapons.

In my book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear Threat to Our Planet, and TV documentary, Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens, I noted the 1988 declaration of Lt. General James Abramson, first head of the Strategic Defense Initiative, that "without reactors in orbit [there is] going to be a long, long light cord that goes down to the surface of Earth" bringing up power. He stated: "Failure to develop nuclear power in space could cripple efforts to deploy anti-missile sensors and weapons in orbit."

As to nuclear-propelled rockets, the U.S. has a long history of seeking to build them. Meanwhile, nuclear power above our heads has been shown as unnecessary.

NASA has persisted in using Plutonium-238-powered RTGs on space probes claiming there was no choice. But last year it launched the Juno space probe which is now on its way to Jupiter-- getting all its on-board electricity from solar photovoltaic panels. Likewise, the European Space Agency in 2004 launched a space probe it calls Rosetta, also using solar energy rather than nuclear power for on-board electricity. It is to rendezvous with a comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

As to propulsion in space, a highly promising energy source are the ionized particles in space that can be utilized in the frictionless environment with what are being called solar sails.
In May 2010, the Japan Exploration Agency launched a spacecraft, Ikaros, that seven months later reached Venus -- propelled only by its solar sail. The Planetary Society is readying a similar mission using a spacecraft named LightSail-1 and is planning for two more ambitious solar sail flights of LightSail-2 and LightSail-3.

These missions don't present threats to life on Earth -- unlike the use of nuclear power overhead. Also, the production of nuclear fuel on Earth for use in space -- or in the atmosphere for drones -- constitutes danger, too. Facilities used earlier by the U.S. to produce Plutonium-238 ended up as hotspots for worker contamination and radioactive pollution.

James Powell, executive director of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, which has been opposing Plutonium-238 production at nearby Idaho National Laboratory, comments:

Aside from the looming danger of nuclear-powered crafts above Earth, we should also realize that the nuclear material is to be produced in our backyards with 1960s era nuclear reactors and then transported back and forth from [Oak Ridge National Laboratory in] Tennessee to Idaho. Every single part of this process deeply concerns us.