Magazine article The Nation

Nuclear Roulette

Magazine article The Nation

Nuclear Roulette

Article excerpt

On November 17 a Russian Mars space probe malfunctioned, hurtling to Earth with a half-pound of plutonium--the most toxic substance known--aboard. The plutonium may finally have landed off the coast of Chile, where it will remain hotly radioactive for 2,000 years, or it may have dispersed in the atmosphere to become airborne poison (no one knows for sure). The crash of the nuclear probe is another siren in the night warning of the folly of using nuclear power in space, or anywhere.

So far, six Russian nuclear missions have failed--including the Cosmos 954 satellite, which scattered hundreds of pounds of radioactive debris over northwest Canada--and three U.S. nuclear missions have had accidents, including the crash of a SNAP-9A satellite carrying 2.1 pounds of plutonium, which, according to European nuclear agencies, "vaporized" and "dispersed widely" over the planet. (Medical physicist Dr. John Gofman connects this crash with elevated levels of lung cancer worldwide.)

But despite these warnings, the push to deploy nuclear technology in space continues. On September 19, the White House unveiled its new national space policy, under which the Pentagon and NASA will be working on "multiple nuclear propulsion concepts" with the Defense Special Weapons Agency. In other words Son of Star Wars is on the drawing board.

What next? October 1997 brings the Cassini mission to Saturn (with the largest plutonium payload--72. …

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