By Grossman, Karl
Earth Island Journal , Vol. 14, No. 1
Nuclear-powered activities in space are illegal under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which the United Nations describes as the "basic framework on international space law." The Outer Space Treaty also specifies: "States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects."
On August 18, 1999, NASA's Cassini space probe -- and its 72.3 pounds of plutonium dioxide fuel -- will come hurtling toward Earth at 42,300 miles per hour for a gravity-assisted "slingshot" maneuver to gain the extra speed needed to reach Saturn.
It's supposed to buzz the Earth 496 miles up, but NASA's Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission concedes that, if the probe wobbles in the upper atmosphere, it will break up, plutonium will be released and "approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population ... could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure."
NASA says 2,300 fatal cancers could result. It also outlines its plan: if plutonium rains down on areas of natural vegetation, "relocate animals;" if it falls on agricultural land, "ban future agricultural land uses;" and if it descends on urban areas, "demolish some or all structures" and "relocate affected population permanently."
Since 1991, the US has been covering its nuclear space flights with the Price-Anderson Act. This US law limits liability for a nuclear accident to $8.9 billion for US domestic damage and just $100 million for damage to all foreign nations.
If Cassini "inadvertently" reenters Earth's atmosphere on its planned August 1999 Earth "fly-by" and strikes Africa, Asia, Europe or Latin America, all affected nations could collect only a total of $100 million in damages from NASA. US congressional counsel Dan Berkovitz explained: "You have to understand that the rest of the world is not much of a constituency here in Washington."
The US government Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Panel's Safety Evaluation Report on the Cassini Mission, obtained by Dr. Earl Budin of UCLA, speaks of the possibility of "tens of thousands" of cancer deaths. It also notes that in a Cassini "fly-by" accident, plutonium canisters "not designed for the high speed reentry" could rupture, providing "a collective dose [of vaporized plutonium] to the world's population."
A report from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory also obtained by Dr. Budin lists some 20-plus ways, "from rocket engine failure to ground control error," that Cassini can undergo an "Earth impact."
NASA insists the likelihood of this is small. but on August 12, 1998, a Titan IV rocket (like the one that lofted Cassini) exploded on launch at Cape Canaveral, blowing a $1.3 billion US spy satellite to smithereens. In 1993, another Titan IV blew up on launch. Twenty-five Titan IV launches: Two disastrous accidents. That's a record of one-in-12 for catastrophic launch accidents.
NASA, as Nobel laureate Richard Feynman of the Presidential Investigative Commission on the Challenger accident concluded, "exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy."
Moreover, if the Cassini Earth "fly-by" is successful, NASA is planning eight more plutonium-beating space probe shots in coming years, reports the US General Accounting Office. …