Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2021
By Christine Manwiller
Hidden beneath the glamour of outer space travel lurks the very real threat of potential nuclear disaster. In two recent articles, Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York, calls attention to the use of plutonium batteries in NASA’s deep-space missions. The Mars rover Perseverance is powered by 10.6 pounds of plutonium-238, which is 280 times more radioactive than the plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons. The rover’s tiny need of electricity (about 100 watts) could have been produced with solar panels, a safe option that was sidelined by the influence of the nuclear industry, according to Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. NASA acknowledged that the Atlas V rocket carrying Perseverance had a chance of exploding on take-off, or burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, spreading the deadly plutonium across Florida or the world.
Meanwhile, a February report from the National Academy of Sciences describes a partnership between NASA and the whole Pentagon, advocating the use of reactors in space citing “military advantages.” The reactor industry drives this partnership, seeing space as a lucrative market. These plans proceed in spite of past disasters caused by faulty rockets and failed satellites, including the US Transit 5BN-3 that burned up in the atmosphere in 1964, dispersing plutonium which was later linked to increases in lung cancer. The unnecessary use of plutonium batteries and perhaps even reactors by NASA creates risks for everyone, but as Grossman says, “it’s going to take enormous grassroots action — and efforts by those in public office — to stop it.”