ACTION ALERT: US Set to Resume Production of Plutonium-238
August 6, 2005
Laurie Kirby / Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space
Plutonium-238 is 270 times more radioactive than the plutonium used in atomic bombs. It's used as a power source ifor military spy satellites and NASA space missions such as the upcoming New Horizons mission to Pluto. An explosion at lift-off would be catastrophic. Is it needed? No. Can we stop it? Yes if you act before August 29.
Plutonium-238 is an isotope of plutonium that is 270 times more radioactive than the isotope (plutonium-239) used in atomic bombs. It's used as a power source in radioisotope power systems (RPSs) for military spy satellites and NASA space missions such as the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn and the upcoming New Horizons mission to Pluto.
Is it necessary for these space missions? No: the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission is heading far from the Sun on solar power.
NASA's own Deep Space 1 probe is solar-electric powered. Modern solar power technology can be used to power spacecraft even far from the Sun. The biggest use for the production of plutonium-238 -- and the real reason for its production -- is to provide power for classified military satellites, as well as profits for big military contractors.
The Department of Energy (DOE)'s stockpiles of plutonium-238, even though augmented by Russian imports, are getting low, and the government is keen to start producing it again despite the great environmental and monetary costs of its production, storage and transport.
DOE has a bad track record in the storage, purification, and testing of plutonium; just for the NASA Cassini mission, over 200 cases of worker contamination were reported at Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico (1994-1996).
An Accident at Lift-off Would Be Catastrophic
An accident at the take-off stage would be a major disaster if plutonium were released into the environment. The high accident rate for rockets and space shuttles shows that such an accident is all too possible. At least 8 nuclear accidents in space, involving radioactive contamination of Earth, have already happened.
Plutonium is an incredibly concentrated poison that contaminates for hundreds of thousands of years. Its use should be avoided.
National security will be harmed, not enhanced, by more use of nuclear technology in space. The expansion of such programs is already setting off a new arms race, and feeding more terrorism, as well as making it more likely that plutonium could fall into the hands of terrorists.
And the huge expense of developing and securing nuclear technology cannot be justified bearing in mind pressing social, environmental, security and technological needs.
The DOE is inviting public comments on its draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the proposed consolidation of nuclear activities related to production of RPSs at a single site.
Currently, DOE's ongoing RPS-related production operations are located at three DOE sites in Idaho, New Mexico and Tennessee. This necessitates transport of Pu-238 over thousands of miles between different phases of production. The DEIS lists three alternative plans:
There Are Three Options
The so-called "No Action Alternative" is misleadingly named because like all the alternatives it would involve the resumption of Pu-238 production and processing, using the current facilities.
The "Consolidation Alternative" would move all the operations to the Idaho National Laboratory. This is the DOE's "Preferred Alternative."
There's also a hybrid "Consolidation with Bridge Alternative". For details: http://consolidationeis.doe.gov/index.html
For the background on plutonium in space: http://www.space4peace.org/articles/fire_in_the_sky.htm
Comments are due by August 29, 2005
Send your comments to DOE via e-mail to
Timothy A. Frazier, Document Manager
Office of Space and Defense Power Systems
Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology
US Department of Energy
1000 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20585-1290
You may also leave a message at (800) 919-3706 or send a fax to (800) 919-3765.
Points to Make:
All the three alternatives provided are unsatisfactory, given the high social, environmental, financial and security costs of Pu-238 production, refinement, and transportation.
Each launch of Pu-238 into space also carries a real risk of a catastrophic accident.
The environmentally sensible approach is to develop other power sources for space missions, including solar power, and to design space missions with this in mind. It is not true that (as the DEIS states) "without these [RPS] power systems, NASA missions could not explore deep space and the surfaces of neighboring planets."
DOE and NASA should suspend all plans and operations to produce, purify, assemble, test, and launch plutonium.
Specific environmental problems with all 3 alternatives include: water and soil contamination, air pollution, production of nuclear waste, possibility of accidents during transportation, and impact on Native American sacred lands. In addition, all three alternatives are very expensive.
It is immoral and unwise to spread the poison seed of radioactive contamination to space and other planets.
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