10. PROJECT GALILEO SHUTTLE TO CARRY LETHAL PLUTONIUM
Despite scientific warnings of a possible disaster, NASA is
pursuing plans to launch the Project Galileo shuttle space probe which will carry
enough plutonium to kill every person on earth.
Theoretically, one pound
of plutonium, uniformly distributed, has the potential to give everyone on the
planet a fatal case of lung cancer. Galileo will have 49.25 pounds of plutonium
on board, most of it plutonium 238, a radioisotope 300 times more radioactive
than the one used as fuel for atomic bombs.
Critics of the plan, such as
Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California,
Berkeley, and Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University
of New York claim that putting Galileo's plutonium payload into space is both
risky and unnecessary.
The plutonium will be used to fuel "radioisotope
thermoelectric generators" which keep instrumentation warm. Although NASA
and the DOE say there are no alternatives, professor Kaku asserts that the latest
advances in solar cells make it possible to generate solar electricity even as
far away as Jupiter, Galileo's destination.
NASA downplays the possibility
of the release of plutonium in an accident, stressing that the substance will
be encapsulated in "clads" made from iridium alloy in a graphite shell.
The DOE contends that clads can withstand explosive pressures up to 2,200 pounds
per square inch. However, a DOE safety analysis report on the Galileo mission
obtained under FOIA states that from the viewpoint of potential nuclear fuel release,
the most critical accidents would occur on the launch pad. Launch pad accident
scenarios, such as "tipovers" and "pushovers" are estimated
to generate explosive pressures as high as 19,600 psi.
Once in space, Galileo
is still potentially dangerous. Since the solid-fuel rocket substituted for the
highly volatile liquid-fuel Centaur rocket used in the Challenger does not have
the power of the Centaur, NASA devised a plan to use the earth's gravitational
pull to increase the rocket's momentum sufficiently to reach Jupiter. During the
"flyby" orbits around the earth, Galileo would at times be only 277
miles overhead. A 1987 NASA report estimates the chance of Galileo inadvertently
reentering the earth's atmosphere to be less than one in a million, and, as such,
an accident scenario is deemed not credible.
NASA set the probability figures
for the chance of a shuttle accident at one in 100,000 for the Challenger. Investigation
following the crash put the figure at closer to one in 25.
Lethal Shuttle: Plutonium Payload Scheduled" was one of the top 10 overlooked
stories cited by Project Censored in 1986, the continued failure of the media
to draw attention to the potential risk of Project Galileo fully warrants its
renomination for 1987.
THE NATION, 1/23/88, "The Space Probe's Lethal Cargo," by
Karl Grossman, pp 1, 78; L.A. TIMES, 2/6/86.