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There’s no earthly need for plutonium in space

NASA’s so-called Cassini space probe to Saturn is scheduled to launch Oct. 6. On the one hand, it is part of a great human endeavor to fathom the far reaches of space. On the other, it is potentially an act of cosmic destruction.

The problem is the plutonium package on board to generate electricity (see NCR , Aug. 29). An accident could cause untold harm on earth and/or in space. This cry to stop and reconsider even at the 11th hour is unlikely to be heard, just as previous appeals have gone unheard, because of the money and reputations at stake, but cry we must because we owe it to ourselves and the future of the planet not to go thus quietly into any nuclear good night.

Writes Helen Caldicott, one of many serious scientific voices raised in protest: “One pound of plutonium, if uniformly distributed, could induce lung cancer in every person on earth. We are talking about 72 times one pound of plutonium.”

And Theodore Taylor, nuclear physicist: “If accidentally dispersed into the atmosphere, Plutonium-238 from a space reactor could render uninhabitable an area several times the area of Germany for more than a hundred years.”

And Horst Poehler, NASA contract scientist: “With so much plutonium on board, Cassini could be the mother of all accidents. ... The shielding on the plutonium is fingernail thin. It’s a joke. Remember the old Hollywood movies when a mad scientist would risk the world to carry out his particular project? Well, those mad scientists have moved to NASA.”

The “mad scientists” say all this is alarmist. But they say it with less conviction each time. NASA originally calculated the chance of a Cassini accident’s releasing plutonium to be less than one in one thousand. Given the dire consequences, that’s not thoroughly reassuring. And then NASA revised its estimate to one in 345. Who knows when they will find it necessary to revise again? According to the War and Peace Foundation, three out of 26 U.S. space missions involving nuclear materials have ended in mishap. These calculations are all throws of the dice, and in various banal ways we dice with death every day. Sadder is the realization that, after millions of years of being earth-bound, we entered outer space, relatively speaking, only yesterday. And already we flirt with contaminating it.

These are supposedly our best minds at work at places like NASA, yet it’s as if they learned nothing while we turned Earth into a junk heap in one short century.

There’s nothing more thankless than to be the shrill-voiced prophet of doom in the marketplace or mall. It is lonely to swim against the current of popular opinion in an age of conformity like ours. Even if we know the space probe will lift off anyway, we must keep on shouting “Stop!” As Shakespeare so grandly put it, “Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honor’s at the stake.” Or when life as we know it is at the stake.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 1997