Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Brunswick, Maine, United States

I'll be taking an 'unpaid leave of absence' from my job at the Global Network from December 15-March 15, 2020 in order to help my friend Lisa Savage on her campaign for the US Senate in Maine. She's running as a Maine Green Independent Party member and needs to gather 2,000 petition signatures of registered Greens during that period. I'll be back to GN after March 15.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

NASA ADMITS SOLAR WILL WORK IN DEEP SPACE

  Posted by PicasaBy Karl Grossman

For years NASA insisted it couldn’t be done. Beyond the orbit of Mars, NASA said, solar energy could not be used to generate electricity for onboard power on space devices.

So the agency used the extremely dangerous nuclear substance, plutonium, as fuel in electric generating systems—and people on Earth were put at great risk in the event of an accident.

For instance, in 1997 NASA launched its Cassini plutonium-fueled space probe and in 1999 had Cassini hurtle back at Earth in a “slingshot maneuver” to increase its velocity so it could get to Saturn. If there was what NASA called an “inadvertent reentry” of Cassini into the Earth’s atmosphere during the “slingshot maneuver” just a few hundred miles up, it would disintegrate and “5 billion…of the world population…could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure,” NASA admitted in its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission.

The death toll from a Cassini accident was put by Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, at 20 million to 40 million.

And this is not a sky-is-falling story. Of 28 U.S. space missions using plutonium,
there have been three accidents, the worst in 1964 in which a plutonium-powered satellite fell back to Earth, breaking up and spreading the toxic radioactive substance widely.

That caused NASA to develop solar power for satellites—and today all satellites (and the International Space Station) are energized by solar panels. But, insisted NASA, in deep space sunlight is too weak and solar energy could not work, only plutonium would.

Now the leading space industry trade magazine, Aviation Week & Space Technology, reveals that solar energy is to be used by NASA to substitute for nuclear power in deep space. The July 17th article began: “Budget and technical realities have led NASA to put its once-ambitious space nuclear power plans on a slow track, but development in solar power generation should allow new scientific probes beyond Mars to operate without nuclear energy. The U.S. space agency is already planning a solar-powered mission to study the atmosphere of Jupiter, and has looked at sending probes as deep into space as Neptune using only the Sun’s energy for spacecraft and instrument power…It is all but certain the next U.S. deep-space missions will be solar-powered.”

The piece went on describe the new giant solar energy systems that will be used to harvest solar energy at record efficiencies vast distances from the Sun.

Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, comments that “for years NASA said that the Global Network didn't know what we were talking about when it came to solar power working in deep space. Now NASA is planning to do what we've been saying all along they could do. It just goes to show that our protests have been right on the money and have pushed them in this direction more than anyone realizes.”

“Our next step is to shut down the entire space nuclear power program for good and press on with our efforts to keep weapons out of space,” said Gagnon. “This admission by NASA that solar will work in deep space is a victory for all of our supporters around the world who have been resisting the launch of nuclear power in space for the past 20 years. It just goes to show that if you are willing to stay on top of an issue for a long time that something good can come from your hard work."

Jeremy Maxand, executive director of Idaho’s nuclear watchdog, the Snake River Alliance, that has been challenging the U.S. Department of Energy’s plan to use Idaho National Laboratory to produce plutonium, says, “It’s good to see plutonium space batteries following in the steps of the now demoted planet Pluto. We've said since day one that plutonium is unnecessary and dangerous, and that we can do the same job a better way, and now we're seeing what that better way is—solar."

What’s going to happen now concerning plutonium production at Idaho National Laboratory? Probably, DOE will claim, what with the space function downgraded, it’s important to continue another use—a so-called “national security” use—of the especially nasty isotope of plutonium, Plutonium-238, to be fabricated at the facility.

What DOE is referring to is the use of plutonium in surveillance devices the U.S. has through the decades left in far-flung areas of the world.

Here, too, solar panels could harvest the needed energy safely. And, post-9/11, scattering plutonium-fueled surveillance devices around the planet is asking for it. All it would take is “a terrorist with a Phillips head screwdriver” to take plutonium from one of these devices and fabricate a super-dirty bomb, as Maxand has pointed out.

As to the safety record of these systems, most of it is hidden in secrecy but an illuminating book, just-published, is An Eye at the Top of the World by Pete Takeda (Thunder’s Mouth Press). It reports on how the CIA installed a plutonium-powered surveillance device in the mid-1960s in the Himalayas, which was subsequently swept away by an avalanche. The device fell and sunk into a glacier and was lost.

The plutonium it contained is now “moving ever closer to the source of the Ganges River”—a sacred river for a billion people.

We don’t need plutonium in space, at Idaho National Laboratory, spreading into the Ganges—or any place on Earth.

And, as in space, so should it go on the Earth below.

Maxand notes: “The window of opportunity to fool the public into going nuclear, in energy and space travel, is quickly closing. While DOE and big nuke contractors like Lockheed Martin are rushing to secure funding and policy to keep nuclear around, alternative energy developers are running laps around the nuke industry.”

We don’t need to take the enormous risk of atomic energy. The Bush administration and nuclear industry’s plans for a “revival” of nuclear power must be stopped. There’s no need to have atomic power plants—or nuclear poisons over our heads. Safe energy technologies are here.
***

- Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of The Wrong Stuff (Common Courage Press) and narrator of the TV documentary Nukes In Space (www.envirovideo.com).

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