The following essay was sent to Space News last week. In the mid 1990s, Space News published several letters of mine and one Op-Ed regarding Cassini, a "deep" space probe with 72.3 pounds of plutonium on board. Kofi Annan took the opposing, pro-Cassini view on the same page, in a meandering mistake he is surely not proud of. This essay seemed a natural fit, but I haven't heard back.
The only change I've made (besides the publication date) from the version I sent Lon Rains (the editor of Space News) is in the first paragraph, which now says "more than a week" instead of "days." I'm shocked -- shocked, I tell you! -- that Space News apparently has chosen not to publish it.
If a million people are killed but nobody knows who to blame, is it still murder?
By Ace Hoffman February, 2008
Before the Ides of March, a bus-sized CIA spy satellite will fall to earth. It's been tumbling uncontrollably for more than a week.
The CIA has no idea where it will come down and may not tell us anyway. But they are already cautioning people that the satellite contains hazardous materials.
It might contain one or more plutonium RTGs (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators), which are sometimes called RPSs, or Radioactive Power Sources (sometimes the letters stand for slightly different things).
NASA uses RTGs for "deep space probes," but this author and others have argued that the focus on deep-space is a fraud -- a COVER for earth-orbiting spy satellites which ALSO use RTGs.
Solar panels can be used at least as far out as Saturn. Fuel cell technology could be used even for probes to Pluto. So WHY does NASA have such an overwhelming desire to use an incredibly deadly substance despite widespread public protests, when safe alternatives are available? Is it because, for spy satellites, RTGs offer several advantages?
This particular spy satellite was in low earth orbit (which is why it's coming down so soon after they realized it's tumbling uncontrollably, and falling). It only operated for a few years, and was supposed to spend significant amounts of time in earth's shadow, where solar power could not be used directly. Batteries? Fine, for a while. But then they start to weaken from repeated cycles of charging / discharging. This bird was supposed to stay aloft for more than 30 years -- which could add up to nearly 200,000 charge / discharge cycles! If you can get 1,000 cycles out of your phone or computer battery, congratulations.
This spy satellite probably had an enormous umbrella-shaped listening antenna (or several) which could be aimed at particular points of interest on the surface of the earth.
Since the satellite was NOT 22,600 miles above the equator in stationary ("geosynchronous") orbit, the listening antenna would have to be maneuvered constantly. The antenna, once deployed in space, typically covers an area the size of three football fields. Another, much smaller antenna must be aimed at a ground station (or another satellite) so that the transmissions can be downloaded.
Would they really want a bunch of solar panels getting in the way, and only working part of the time, plus the batteries to worry about? Using thermocouples, one RTG produces a constant 750 watts of power.
But RTGs contain Pu-238, and the half-life of Pu-238 -- 87.75 years -- is about 275 times SHORTER than the half-life of Pu-239 ("weapons-grade plutonium") -- 24,131 years. This means that for the next few generations, the Pu-238 is about 275 times more carcinogenic than the Pu-239.
When people say "plutonium" without specifying the isotope, they almost always mean Pu-239.
Pu-239 is often called the "deadliest stuff on earth." It's been calculated that a single pound (some argue that the correct figure is actually "a couple of pounds") of Pu-239, if evenly distributed and deposited in the lungs of every human on earth, would be enough to guarantee that each person would get lung cancer.
For those who will be around in 24,000 years, an RTG's nearly 13% (by weight) Pu-239 content is much worse than its Pu-238 content, since half of the Pu-239 would still be around and NONE of the Pu-238 would exist (although some of its radioactive daughter products would probably still exist).
But, for the immediate future, dropping ONE RTG (less than 25 pounds of Pu-238) on our heads is the carcinogenic equivalent of dropping more than 6,000 pounds of Pu-239 on our heads.
6,000 pounds's worth of Pu-239 would be a very serious health concern! (A typical thermonuclear weapons contains around 10 to 20 pounds of Pu-239, plus several other radioactive materials such as uranium, tritium, etc..)
The RTGs are designed to break away from a tumbling space probe (or spy satellite) in the event of an unplanned reentry.
Next, the RTG's fins melt. Then the RTG's outer shell melts.
By the way, the technical term is "ablation," not "melting." And the technical term for cancer (and other dreadful diseases) is "health effect."
Within each RTG there are 18 smaller containers called GPHSs (General Purpose Heat Sources), which each hold two containers the size of your thumb called GISs (Graphite Impact Shells, inside of CDCF (Carbon Bonded Carbon Fiber) sleeves). The GIS holds the plutonium.
After the RTG melts away, the GPHS units are released. THEY start to melt. In the IDEAL situation, they slow down enough so the melting stops before all the cladding is stripped away. Then the GPHSs tumble to earth in freefall and hopefully don't smash on a rock or pavement. Even if only the GIS remains, it's not a global disaster (although it can still be a significant local problem).
However, according to NASA's own studies, in a typical reentry accident, some of the GPHS units may fail, and ALL OF THEM will fail if the RTG gets hung up in the tumbling satellite for even a SECOND OR TWO longer than "expected."
What if a hydrazine explosion during reentry sends debris crashing into the RTG, destroying it and at least some of the GPHSs inside? What if the GPHSs tumble into each other and break apart? Each GPHS contains more than a pound of plutonium.
All these scenarios -- and many others -- are mathematically calculated, and then coldly discounted. NASA's engineers guess the odds for thousands of different possibilities, and if they don't like the results of their calculations, they change the basic assumptions and rerun the simulations.
But in real life, things don't always go ideally. The plutonium, once dispersed, will be in nano-particle sizes that are PERFECT for lodging PERMANENTLY in your lungs.
The vaporized plutonium represents a significant global hazard, and will take weeks and even YEARS to descend to earth -- the first time. Much of it will be resuspended over and over.
If the satellite's debris scatters over water, the CIA can say that they are "reasonably certain" that no plutonium escaped. But they won't know, because the way those RTGs and GPHSs and GISs and so forth all work is that IF they disperse their plutonium, it will be at very high altitude and very high speed. A streak of deadly dust will burn across the sky.
If the CIA is somehow forced to admit that an accidental release of plutonium MIGHT have occurred, then the CIA would say that ANY Pu-238 which was released will inevitably "fade into background."
But ALL radiation is harmful.
In 1964, another satellite (SNAP-9A) released 2.1 pounds of Pu-238, and caused strong public outcry. In response, NASA invented the RTG containment system, to fool the public (and many scientists) into believing the problem had been solved, and plutonium was once again safe to use in space. But the RTG "containment system" is seriously flawed, in devious ways.
The 1964 SNAP-9A "accident" caused a measurable increase in the amount of plutonium in the northern hemisphere, where most of the debris fell (and where most people live). Adult males in the northern hemisphere reputedly urinate out about one million atoms of Pu-238 every day because of that ONE accident!
That "one million atoms per day" figure has been provided to this author by several different PRO-nukers, and has also been seen in several different public sources over the years. Each pro-nuclear source further claimed this "obviously" was a safe amount since we are not all dead from it!
But as a bladder cancer survivor, I wonder if that plutonium was what poisoned my bladder? Will this latest "accident" cause a recurrence?
A hundredth of a microgram of Pu-238, or thereabouts, is a deadly dose. It will suffice to give you a horrible experience of hospitals, starving for air, pain, and death. But even a 10,000th of a microgram STILL has a 1% chance of being a deadly dose.
Ten or 20 years from now, no one will know if their lung cancer or other ailment, or their deformed child, is because of this satellite, or some other radioactive assault, or something else. For the perpetrator, that's the beauty of this form of murder. They are GUARANTEED to get away with it again and again.
This satellite, when it was launched, was premeditated MURDER, and now that it is coming down to earth, those MURDERS are about to be committed, no matter if the perpetrator or the SPECIFIC victims are identifiable or not.
The author, an award-winning educational software developer, is also webmaster of the STOP CASSINI web site and blogs regularly on nuclear issues. After the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, the author created an informative animation about RTGs and other radioactive materials in space:
For more information about the militarization of space, please visit our friends at Global Network:
Visit the author's STOP CASSINI web site where much of the backup data for this essay is posted (and where this essay will be posted soon):
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