Plutonium—the most lethal of all radioactive substances—in space

“A ‘1-in-960 chance’ of a deadly plutonium release is a real concern—gamblers in Las Vegas would be happy with those odds.”


With all the media hoopla last week about the Perseverance rover, frequently unreported was that its energy source is plutonium—considered the most lethal of all radioactive substances—and nowhere in media that NASA projected 1-in-960 odds of the plutonium being released in an accident on the mission.

  “A ‘1-in-960 chance’ of a deadly plutonium release is a real concern—gamblers in Las Vegas would be happy with those odds,” says Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.

Indeed, big-money lotteries have odds far higher than 1-in-960 and routinely people win those lotteries.

Further, NASA’s Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the $3.7 billion mission acknowledges that an “alternative” power source for Perseverance could have been solar energy. Solar energy using photovoltaic panels has been the power source for a succession of Mars rovers. 

For an accident releasing plutonium on the Perseverance launch—and 1 in 100 rockets undergo major malfunctions on launch mostly by blowing up—NASA in its SEIS described these impacts for the area around the Cape Kennedy under a heading “Impacts of Radiological Releases on the Environment.” 

It states: “In addition to the potential human health consequences of launch accidents that could result in a release of plutonium dioxide, environmental impacts could also include contamination of natural vegetation, wetlands, agricultural land, cultural, archaeological and historic sites, urban areas, inland water, and the ocean, as well was impacts on wildlife.”

It adds: “In addition to the potential direct costs of radiological surveys, monitoring, and potential cleanup following an accident, there are potential secondary societal costs associated with the decontamination and mitigation activities due to launch area accidents. Those costs may include: temporary or longer term relocation of residents; temporary or longer term loss of employment; destruction or quarantine of agricultural products, including citrus crops; land use restrictions; restrictions or bans on commercial fishing; and public health effects and medical care.”

NASA was compelled to make disclosures about the odds of an accident releasing plutonium, alternatives to using nuclear power on the Perseverance and consequences of a plutonium release under the National Environmental Policy Act. 

Its SEIS can be viewed online at here.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is now producing large amounts of Plutonium-238, the plutonium isotope used for space missions. The U.S. stopped producing Plutonium-238 in 1988, and it began obtaining it from Russia, in recent years no longer happening. A series of NASA space shots using Plutonium-238 are planned for coming years. Plutonium-238 is 280 times more radioactive than Plutonium-239, the plutonium isotope used in atomic bombs and as a “trigger” in hydrogen bombs.

There are 10.6 pounds of Plutonium-238 on Perseverance. 

We might have dodged a plutonium bullet on the Perseverance mission. The Atlas V rocket carrying it was launched without blowing up. And the rocket didn’t fall back from orbit with Perseverance and its Plutonium-238 disintegrating on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and plutonium dispersed.

But with NASA planning more space missions involving nuclear power including developing nuclear-powered rockets for trips to Mars and launching rockets carrying nuclear reactors for placement on the Moon and Mars, space-based nuclear Russian roulette is at hand.

The acknowledgement that “an accident resulting in the release of plutonium dioxide from the MMRTG [Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator] occurs with a probability of 1 in 960” is made repeatedly in the SEIS.

The amount of electricity produced by the MMRTG on Perseverance is miniscule—some 100 watts, similar to a light bulb.

A solar alternative to the use of plutonium on the mission is addressed at the start of the SEIS in a “Description and Comparison of Alternatives” section.

First is “Alternative 1” which proposes that the rover use a plutonium-fueled MMRTG “to continually provide heat and electric power to the rover’s battery so that the rover could operate and conduct scientific work on the planet’s surface.”

That is followed by “Alternative 2” which states: “Under this alternative, NASA would discontinue preparations for the Proposed Action (Alternative 1) and implement a different power system for the Mars rover. The rover would use solar power to operate instead of a MMRTG.” 

The worst U.S. accident involving the use of nuclear power in space came in 1964 when the U.S. satellite Transit 5BN-3, powered by a SNAP-9A plutonium-fueled radioisotope thermoelectric generator, failed to achieve orbit and fell from the sky. It broke apart as it burned up in the atmosphere. That accident was long linked to a spike in global lung cancer rates where the plutonium was spread by Dr. John Gofman, an M.D. and Ph. D., a professor of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley. NASA, after the SNAP-9A (SNAP for Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power) accident became a pioneer in developing solar photovoltaic power. All U.S. satellites now are energized by solar power, as is the International Space Station.

The worst accident involving nuclear power in space in the Soviet/Russian space program occurred in 1978 when the Cosmos 954 satellite with a nuclear reactor aboard fell from orbit and spread radioactive debris over a 373-mile swath from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake in Canada. There were 110 pounds of highly-enriched uranium fuel on Cosmos 954. 

I first began writing widely about the use of nuclear power in space 35 years ago when I broke the story in The Nation magazine about how the next mission of the ill-fated shuttle Challenger was to loft the Ulysses space probe fueled with 24.2 pounds of Plutonium-238 (to conduct orbits around the sun).

If the Challenger had blown up on that mission, scheduled for May 1986, instead of blowing up on January 28, 1986, and the plutonium released, it would not have been six astronauts and teacher-in-space Chris McAuliffe dying but many more people.

Pursuing the issue, I authored the books The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet and Weapons In Space, and wrote and presented the TV documentary Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens and other TV programs. And I have written many hundreds of articles.

The absence in media reporting on the Perseverance Mars rover of the dangers involving the nuclear material on it and the chances of that plutonium being dispersed is not new.

In The Wrong Stuff I include a section on “The Space Con Job.”

I quote extensively from an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review after the Challenger accident by William Boot, its former editor, titled “NASA and the Spellbound Press.” He wrote: “Dazzled by the space agency’s image of technological brilliance, space reporters spared NASA thorough scrutiny that might have improved chances of averting tragedy—through hard-hitting investigations drawing Congress’s wandering attention to the issue of shuttle safety.”

He found “gullibility” in the press. “The press,” he wrote, has been “infatuated by man-in-space adventures.” He related that “U.S. journalists have long had a love affair with the space program.” He said “many space reporters appeared to regard themselves as participants, along with NASA, in a great cosmic quest. Transcripts of NASA press confernces reveal that it was not unusual for reporters to use the first person plural. (‘When are we going to launch?)”

Also, in The Wrong Stuff I wrote about an address on “Science and the Media” by the New York Times space reporter John Noble Wilford in 1990 at Brookhaven National Laboratory. In it he declared: “I am particularly intrigued by science and scientists…My favorite subject is planetary science.” After his talk, I interviewed him and he acknowledged that “there’s still a lot of space reporters who are groupies.” Still, he went on, “some of the things that NASA does are so great, so marvelous, so it’s easy to forget to be critical.”

On NBC’s Today show, the attitude of the reporters was as celebratory on the morning of the landing as the label of the video aired showing “Jubilation at NASA Control.” Never was there a mention of nuclear power or plutonium or the acknowledged risks of an accident and dispersal of plutonium.

“I am disheartened that the media shows little inclination to mention the words ‘plutonium’ or ‘probabilities of accidental release’ in their so-called reporting of the Mars rover arrival. You have to question who they work for,” says Bruce Gagnon of the Global Network.

“We daily hear the excited anticipation of the nuclear industry as stories reveal the growing plans for hosts of launches of nuclear devices—more rovers on Mars, mining colonies on the moon, even nuclear reactors to power rockets bound for Mars. The nuclear industry is rolling the dice while people on Earth have their fingers crossed in the hope technology does not fail—as it often does,” said Gagnon, of the Maine-based international organization that since its formation in 1992 has been challenging the use of nuclear power and the deployment of weapons in space. The U.S. has favored nuclear power as an energy source for space-based weapons.

Further, said Gagnon, “the media, while ignoring the Mars rover plutonium story, is also guilty of not reporting about the years of toxic contamination at the Department of Energy nuclear labs where these space nuclear devices are produced. The Idaho Nuclear Laboratory and Los Alamos Nuclear lab in New Mexico have long track records of worker and environmental contamination during this dirty space nuke fabrication process.”

Declared Gagnon: “The public will need to do more than cross our fingers in hopes that nothing goes wrong. We need to speak out loudly so Congress, NASA and the DoE hear that we do not support the nuclearization of the heavens. Go solar or better yet—stay home and use our tax dollars to take care of the legions of people without jobs, health care, food, or heat. Mars can wait.”


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