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Over Our Heads:Cassini coming up fast

By Maureen Costello


Here is the third in a series of articles dealing with the upcoming launch of the Cassini Saturn probe (scheduled for Oct. 4). The Prism has deemed the Cassini project to be sufficiently hazardous to worldwide health to merit this overview.

How's this for the plot of a new science fiction movie? Some misguided scientists cook up a plan to launch a space probe loaded with 72 pounds of plutonium, the most toxic substance known. They decide to launch it from a type of rocket that has accidentally blown up at the launch pad in the past. Unrealistic? Wait, stay with me here, it gets better.

Let's say the rocket doesn't explode at the launch and the probe heads towards its mission, which is on Saturn. Now, let's thicken the plot a bit. About two years after the launch, this same plutonium-laden space probe comes flying back toward the Earth at 42,300 miles per hour to gain enough velocity to propel on to Saturn. Heading back here the probe flies just 312 miles above Earth. How's that for a tension builder? Now here's the climax.

If there's a miscalculation as the probe swings by Earth, if it inadvertently falls into our 75-mile high atmosphere, then five billion humans get hit with 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure. How's that for action packed suspense? Now let's add some comic relief. The 72 pounds of plutonium will supply the probe with only 745 watts of electricity, the same wattage your hair dryer takes to operate.

Too unrealistic a plot for a movie? But not too unrealistic a plot for NASA; it's the actual plan for the Cassini mission set to launch this October, according to the award-winning documentary "Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens." Produced by Steve Jambeck and Karl Grossman at their New York production company, EnviroVideo, this film documents NASA's plans to use nuclear technology and warns viewers about the potential risks. Combining NASA footage, an original blues soundtrack and interviews with scientists, physicians and activists, Grossman, a Professor of Journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury and Jambeck, an Emmy-award winning cameraman, produce a riveting account of what the future could hold. The Cassini, a space probe carrying 72 pounds of plutonium-238 on a mission to Saturn, has two dangerous flashpoints, according to the filmmakers. The initial risk is in October when Cassini will be launched from a Titan IV rocket, the same type of rocket that blew up 101 seconds after launch from Vandenberg Air Force base in 1993. If there is a blowup, the plutonium-carrying cannisters could break open or melt and spread radioactive particles.1

If all goes well that day, don't breathe a sigh of relief yet. The second potential flashpoint is August 1999, when Cassini flies back toward the earth. After many millions of miles in space, if there is a miscalculation, Cassini could make what NASA in its Final Impact Statement calls an "inadvertent reentry" and fall into Earth's 75-mile high atmosphere. If that happened, according to NASA, "approximately five billion of the estimated seven to eight billion world population could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure." 2

The ironic part of all this is that the plutonium will supply only 745 watts of electricity to power just the space probe's instruments, according to Grossman. Very high-efficiency solar cells have already been developed by a German company, Angewandte Solarenergia-ASE, and could provide that power if the space probe were redesigned, he says.

So why is NASA using plutonium to generate such a small amount of power? Grossman has a theory. The reason NASA insists on using nuclear power is to keep powerful government contractors happy, he says. The contractors include Lockheed-Martin (which makes the Titan rocket and two years ago took over General Electric's aerospace division, a maker of plutonium-fueled space systems), the Department of Energy's national nuclear laboratories, and the military, which regards nuclear technology as essential to dominate space. 3 In the News

Why haven't you read more about Cassini in the newspapers or seen anything on the evening news? Grossman points out that the parent company of NBC is General Electric and GE manufactures turbines for nuclear reactors. The parent company of CBS is Westinghouse and more than 40 percent of the world's nuclear plants use Westinghouse engineering, he explains.

"Eighty percent of the world's nuclear power plants are designed by Westinghouse or GE," he says. "You have to ask, 'Who owns the media?'"

Grossman's numerous articles about Cassini have appeared in publications such as CovertAction Quarterly, Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Nation and The Baltimore Sun. In March this year, Grossman's article "Risking the World: Nuclear Proliferation in Space," was selected by Project Censored as the number one most underreported story of 1996. Fifty-five faculty evaluators reviewed Grossman's article and rated it as the most covered-up article of the year, ranking highest in national importance and validity. Due to this award, his investigative research gets covered by numerous publications throughout the world, and NASA's plans to launch plutonium gains international attention.

Anita Roddick, CEO and founder of The Body Shop, writes about Cassini numerous times in her weekly column in the British newspaper The Independent. She encourages readers in England to write to their officials to stop Cassini. During President Clinton's trip to England in May, she used her column to urge Clinton herself.

"So Bill if you're reading this," she wrote, "Cancel Cassini and order NASA to pursue alternative power sources."

Roddick thinks that a news story like Cassini gets buried because it is too complicated for the media and their public to comprehend.

"What can you say about nuclear proliferation in space that manages to convey the enormity, the idiocy of the concept without sounding like Nostradamus," she said.

What you can say is that sending plutonium into space can affect each and every one of us in a very real way. If an accident happened as Cassini flies by the Earth and plutonium particles rain down, you wouldn't know if or when you were breathing in microscopic, invisible particles of plutonium. You wouldn't know which breath could lead to lung cancer in the years to come. Dr. Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, called these plutonium particles "incredibly deadly stuff."

"Named after Pluto, god of the underworld, plutonium is so toxic that less than one-millionth of a gram, is a carcinogenic dose," said Dr. Caldicott. "If these particles lodge in the terminal air passages of the lungs, they massively irradiate a small volume of cells for many years."

Plutonium can cause lung cancer, bone cancer, leukemia and liver cancer, according to Dr. Caldicott. In men and boys, it lodges in the testicles, where it can induce cancer and mutate genes responsible for future generations. In pregnant women, it crosses the placenta to damage the developing embryo, she says.

NASA officials say the mission poses an "acceptable risk." Just what is an "acceptable risk"? NASA's 1994 environmental impact statement estimated a 1-in-900 chance of radioactive release during launch and a 1-in-1.3 million risk of it hitting the Earth during its 1999 flyby.4 But let's not forget the Challenger. Remember when it blew up on live television with the schoolteacher in it? Before the Challenger was launched in 1986, NASA had reported remote odds for failure, 1-in-100,000, according to the Washington, DC-based group, Peace Action.5

When the Challenger exploded with Christa McAuliffe on board, we were all shocked. But at least she had signed on for the mission. Now with Cassini and NASA's other list of plans for using nuclear technology we're all exposed to risk if the plutonium falls back to the Earth. So you may want to ask yourself, is this is a mission that you want to be on?

Who'll stop the plutonium rain?

EnviroVideo is not alone in its efforts to inform and warn people about NASA's nuclear plans.

A group based out of Gainesville, the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice, is leading international resistance and encouraging citizens everywhere to write to politicians. With no money and a volunteer staff, they're sending packets of information on Cassini and responding to thousands of requests.

Steve Jambeck, EnviroVideo President, is working along with his wife, Joan Flynn raising money so they can duplicate 2500 copies of "Nukes In Space." They'll send the free copies to environmental activists, world leaders and media organizations to publicize the risks of launching large loads of plutonium. In the meantime, "Nukes In Space" recently won 1st place at the Houston Film Festival and was selected as a finalist to be shown at the 3rd International Film Festival in Pretoria, South Africa.

In early spring this year, Global Response, a group based in Boulder, Colorado, started a Stop Cassini letter writing campaign urging their members to notify their elected officials and newspapers. Their homepage links to a Stop Cassini multimedia website, which features a revolving graphic of Earth as seen from space, accompanied by John Lennon's "Imagine" and a daily countdown of days left to stop Cassini. The site lists various halt-the-launch vigils being held at the United Nations, the White House and The New York Times.

These groups hope to get at least one million people to phone, fax or mail their protests against Cassini to the White House. If that doesn't stop the mission, non-violent attempts to sit on the Cassini launch pad will follow an October 4th national demonstration at Cape Canaveral.

For more information contact:

Footnotes 1 to 4. Karl Grossman, "Nuclear Menace in Outer Space," The Baltimore Sun, December 12, 1996.
5. Daniel Chong, Peace Action Fact Sheet.

  Maureen Costello is a veteran journalist who has worked for the Portland Press Herald and produced educational documentaries for the North Carolina Humanities Council. She is currently a free-lance writer.

Karl Grossman's (Professor of Journalism at SUNY) new book entitled The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear Threat To Our Planet is now available. The book details NASA's plans to launch plutonium into space for many years to come and reveals the Pentagon's plans to use nuclear power for weapons in space, their "Master of Space" program. Send checks or money orders for $22.95 plus $2 s/h to Florida Coalition for Peace & Justice, PO Box 90035, Gainesville, Fl 32607.


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