Scott Tibbs
Published in the Indiana Daily Student, October 20, 1997

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NASA must not bow to anti-nuke forces

The end of the world is near.

At least, that's what some environmental activists want you to believe about the Cassini mission controversy in which NASA is embroiled. Anti-nuclear activists have been vigorously protesting the launch, which will carry 72.3 pounds of plutonium 238, the most ever launched into space.

The use of plutonium to power the spacecraft is absolutely necessary, because solar power cannot be used efficiently that far from the sun. Were NASA to use solar power, the panels would be so bulky that Cassini would be too heavy to send to Saturn.

Anti-nuke forces have been saying the mission is too dangerous and could prove deadly to thousands of people should there be an accident. But NASA statistics disprove this claim. NASA has tested the casing for the plutonium repeatedly since deciding on using this method of power, and the casing has stood up to the beating.

According to NASA, the odds of a release of plutonium via a launching accident is one in 1,400, and the odds of a release late in launching are one in 476. The most feared aspect of the mission to Saturn, for many anti-nuke activists, is the planned flyby of Earth for a gravity-assisted slingshot to Saturn. Despite the claims of the activists, this is also the least dangerous aspect of the mission. NASA's Web page, at, explains that the chances of a flyby accident resulting in entry into Earth's atmosphere are 1 in 1 million. The spacecraft is never on a direct trajectory toward Earth, and it would take a severe accident to send Cassini back into Earth's atmosphere. An accident would occur only if onboard systems, backup systems and flight controllers were prevented from correcting the trajectory.

In addition, the plutonium will be launched in ceramic form, similar to a dinner plate. This was done to reduce the chances of fine particles being released into the atmosphere in the event of an accident. Even in the highly unlikely event of an accident, the plutonium will be confined to a small area and would be easy to clean up, according to NASA.

Even though the probability of an accident is small, anti-nuke forces contend the possibility of radiation exposure is unacceptable. But the fact is, if a person inhaled fine particles of plutonium, the radiation exposure he or she would be subjected to during a 50-year period is one millirem. To put this in perspective, the average dose of radiation a person is exposed to naturally during the same 50 years is about 15,000 millirems -- a much more significant figure.

The activists have managed only to discredit themselves in this debate. At one protest, protesters with faces painted like skulls climbed over razor wire and forced their way into a NASA facility. Many protesters were arrested for trespassing and other violations of the law.

Do anti-nuke forces want to stop scientific research? It certainly appears that way. One protester was quoted as saying Saturn will still be there in 30 years, and we should wait that long to make sure we have the technology for a "safe" launch. An appropriate response to this ludicrous assertion is another question: Did we wait to send humans to the moon? Did we wait to launch the space shuttle or Hubble Telescope? No, scientific research must continue, and NASA has done everything possible to make sure the Cassini mission is safe.

The Cassini mission will provide all kinds of new insights into the other planets in our solar system. Since the Hubble Telescope cannot penetrate the thick clouds on Saturn's moon Titan, Cassini will launch a probe onto Titan's surface for analysis. It will also provide new data about Saturn's rings, such as how they got there and how long they are expected to last.

The Cassini mission holds exciting possibilities for new data about our universe. With such small risks, we need to go ahead with this mission and others like it, despite the paranoid claims of the anti-nuclear activists.