Suffolk Closeup: Plutonium in space

Long Islanders were justifiably proud that components of the Apollo program’s lunar module were built at the Grumman facility on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, as well as at the main Grumman plant in Bethpage. Indeed, the space program has been a matter of pride for all Americans, including me.

In the early 1980s, I received a NASA application to be a “Journalist in Space” and, although I didn’t apply, I discussed it with my journalism students at SUNY/Old Westbury as an example of how reporters can get involved in a story.

Subsequently, I got involved in the space issue in a different, highly critical way.

Last week, there was an event that showed, I believe, that my criticism has been justified: NASA’s launching Friday of a space probe called Juno to Jupiter receiving all its on-board electricity and heat through solar power. That’s something NASA long insisted couldn’t be done.

My clashes with NASA began in 1985 when I read a U.S. Department of Energy newsletter article about two space shuttles — one the Challenger — being slated to loft plutonium-fueled space probes the following year. The article noted that the government did an analysis of the consequences if the plutonium were released in an accident. I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for this analysis but was stonewalled by NASA and DOE for a year. Finally, I received data acknowledging the dangers if the plutonium, the deadliest radioactive substance, were discharged, but insisting this was highly unlikely because of the “high reliability inherent in the shuttle.” The chance of a catastrophic shuttle accident was put at 1 in 100,000.

Then the Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, and I broke the story about how its next mission, in May, involved a plutonium-fueled space probe. I raised the issue of casualties if the accident happened then.

NASA rescheduled the two plutonium shots and also changed the odds of a catastrophic shuttle accident to 1 in 76. Also, it insisted there was no substitute for using plutonium on the missions, the first to Jupiter called Galileo. I filed a new FOIA request and this time — after more than two years — got a copy of a study done by eight scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory saying Galileo could be solar-powered. But NASA still insisted that, beyond the orbit of Mars, space devices could not be energized by solar power. Well Juno, with energy to be produced by three solar panels on its journey to Jupiter, shows that to be wrong.

But NASA is still pushing for nuclear power in space. Between November 25 and December 15, it plans to launch a rover to be used on Mars fueled with 10.6 pounds of plutonium in a $2.5 billion mission. In the past, NASA has used solar-powered rovers on Mars.

The costs of an accident at launch or anywhere near Earth — economically and to public health — could be huge. According to the NASA Final Environmental Impact Statement for the mission, the cost of decontamination if a discharge of plutonium were to occur could be as high as $1.5 billion for each square mile of “mixed-use urban areas.” The “probability of an accident with a release of plutonium” is put at just 1 in 220. The greatest health concern is people breathing in a plutonium particle. A millionth of a gram of plutonium can be fatal.

I wrote a book, “The Wrong Stuff,” and have made TV documentaries on the issue. Accidents have happened in the U.S. space nuclear program. Of the 26 space missions that have used plutonium listed in the NASA statement, three had accidents.

The worst occurred in 1964 and involved the SNAP-9A plutonium system aboard a satellite that failed to achieve orbit and dropped to Earth, disintegrating as it fell. The 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel dispersed widely over the Earth and Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, long linked this accident to an increase in global lung cancer. With the SNAP-9A accident, NASA switched to solar energy on satellites. Now all satellites — and the International Space Station — are solar-powered.

Exploring space is considered part of human destiny. But it needs to be done safely, not threatening life on Earth. And last week’s Juno launch showed how this can be done.