What If It Had Been Carrying Plutonium?
The Coming Crash of Phobos-Grunt
by Karl Grossman
The big problems Russia is now having with a space probe it launched this week to go to a moon of Mars underscores the dangers of the planned launch in coming weeks of a NASA mission involving a plutonium-fueled rover that is supposed to go to Mars.
Russia launched its Phobos-Grunt space probe Wednesday and it reached low Earth orbit, but then its engines, which were to power it on to Phobos, one of the two moons of Mars, failed to fire. As a result, the spacecraft has remained in low Earth orbit and, said an Associated Press account Thursday, “the probe will come crashing down [to Earth] in a couple of weeks if engineers fail to fix the problem.”
The AP reported that a spokesman for the Russian space program “said efforts to communicate” with the probe “hadn’t brought any results.” And, it added, “some experts said the chances of saving the $170 million craft looked slim.”
The probe has no nuclear material onboard. It is loaded with 12 tons of what AP described as “highly toxic fuel.” AP said: “Most experts believe the fuel will likely stay liquid if the probe comes down and would harmlessly blow up about 50 miles above ground, but some fear it may freeze, survive the fiery reentry and spill on impact.”
A similar problem with the Mars rover, which NASA calls Curiosity, not breaking out of Earth’s gravity and crashing back to Earth with its 10.6 pounds of plutonium would present a far, far more serious threat—the potential of wide dispersal on the Earth of plutonium, regarded as the most deadly radioactive substance.
NASA intends to launch the plutonium-powered rover on what it has named its Mars Science Laboratory Mission from Florida during a window from November 25 to December 15.
NASA, in its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the mission, addresses the possibility of an accident similar to what the Phobos-Grunt is facing—a crash back Earth from orbit of the Curiosity rover in what NASA designates as “Phase 4” of the launch.
The rover would fall to Earth in “from minutes to years,” says the EIS, with the plutonium “affecting Earth surfaces” along a wide belt around the middle of the Earth.
NASA’s language for this in its EIS: “Phase 4 (Orbital/Escape): Accidents which occur after attaining parking orbit could result in orbital decay reentries from minutes to years after the accident affecting Earth surfaces between approximately 28-degrees north latitude and 28-degrees south latitude.” NASA gives odds of 1-in-830 for the “probability of a release” of plutonium in such an accident.
It says the cost of decontamination of areas affected by the plutonium would be $267 million for each square mile of farmland, $478 million for each square mile of forests and $1.5 billion for each square mile of “mixed-use urban areas.” The Curiosity mission itself has a cost of $2.5 billion.
Between 28 degrees north and 28-degrees south are much of South America, Africa and Australia. The prospect of the U.S. paying fully for loss of life, health impacts and property damage caused by such an impact is questionable.
That’s because in 1991, the U.S. declared that its space missions involving nuclear power would henceforth be covered by the Price-Anderson Act, a U.S. law that limits liability in the event of an accident involving nuclear power—initially enacted in 1957 and focused then on nuclear power plants.
The law, which was supposed to be temporary, running for 10 years, has been repeatedly extended and the limit of liability—how much people could collect—has been increased for U.S. domestic damage from an original $560 million to now $12.6 billion. But the Price-Anderson’s 1957 liability limit of $100 million for all foreign nations impacted by a U.S. nuclear power accident has stayed at $100 million.
In terms of space, this is illegal under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the framework for international space law, which the U.S. has signed. The treaty says that “states shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.” This provision was reaffirmed by the UN General Assembly last year in a measure passed that set up a process for compensation.
The key issue in terms of effects is whether the plutonium remains as the marble-sized pellets fabricated for space use or vaporized and dispersed as fine particles that can be inhaled. A way this could occur is during a fiery reentry in the atmosphere of a space device falling back to Earth. A millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause lung cancer if inhaled. Also, the isotope of plutonium produced for use in space, Plutonium-238, is 270 times more radioactive than the more widely known Plutonium-239, used as fuel in atomic bombs.
NASA has used nuclear power on space missions since the 1950s and there have been accidents. Of the 26 U.S. space missions which used plutonium that are listed in the EIS for the mission involving Curiosity, three underwent accidents, the EIS admits. The worst, in 1964, was a satellite with a SNAP-9A plutonium system aboard failing to achieve orbit and dropped to Earth, disintegrating as it fell. The 2.1 pounds of plutonium fuel dispersed as fine particles widely over the Earth. The late 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.
Because of the SNAP-9A accident, NASA switched to solar energy on satellites. Now all satellites and the International Space Station are solar powered.
Although rovers that NASA has sent to the Earth’s moon and also Mars through the years have used solar photovoltaic panels to provide locomotion, NASA says in its EIS that for the Curiosity mission a “solar-powered rover…would not be capable of operating over the full range of scientifically desirable landing site latitudes.”
The EIS says “overall” on the mission, the likelihood of plutonium being released is 1-in-220. The danger begins with the launch itself and the potential of an explosion on launch of the Atlas 5 rocket that is to carry Curiosity up. Such an accident on launch, says the EIS, could “release material into the regional area defined…to be within…62 miles of the launch pad,” That’s an area including Orlando.
Opponents of the launch in Florida have created a Facebook page warning people not to visit Disney theme parks in Orlando during the launch window. “Don’t Do Disney brought to you by NASA,” the Facebook page is titled. There’s an online petition to The White House to stop the launch at: https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions/!/petition/cancel-launch-mars-rover-curiosity-nasa-which-powered-dangerous-plutonium-238/8HzzWHk9
Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space (www.space4peace.org), comments: “This Russian space mission failure should be a clear reminder to all of us—space technology can and does fail.”
Gagnon said the situation “reminds me of the Russian Mars 96 mission that also failed to achieve proper orbit and fell back to Earth with plutonium on board and burned up over the mountains of Chile and Bolivia.” There was nearly a half-pound of plutonium on the Mars 96 space probe that also failed and crashed back to Earth.
“A NASA scientist and his wife were on a star-gazing expedition” near the site where the probe fell in 1996 and “saw the fiery reentry,” he recounted. “Bill Clinton was president then and was asked to send in radiological teams to help detect the contamination swath, but he refused to help because he didn’t want to alarm the public. So that toxic mess was never cleaned up.”
Gagnon declared: “We are being warned—stop launching nukes into space or else we are going to have a calamitous accident at some point. Folks need to send a message to NASA and the White House—no more nuclear launches.”
The grunt in the name of the Phobos-Grunt space probe is the word for soil in Russian. The probe was to bring soil back to Earth from Phobos. An account yesterday by Reuters reported that it is believed that the “problems are linked to the craft’s on board flight computer, which failed to fire two engine burns to send it on its trajectory toward Mars.” It quoted Vladimir Uvarov, identified as a “former chief Russian military expert on space,” as saying: “In my opinion Phobos-Grunt is lost.”
Reuters said, too, that “Phobos-Grunt is also carrying bacteria, plant seeds and tiny animals known as water bears, part of a U.S. study to see if they could survive beyond the Earth’s protective bubble.”Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet (Common Courage Press) and wrote and presented the TV program Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (www.envirovideo.com).