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[cdn-nucl-l] " Hearings about nuclear-powered probe planned "
September 27, 2006
Hearings about nuclear-powered probe planned
Two public sessions today will focus on Mars mission
BY JOHN KELLY
CAPE CANAVERAL - A sophisticated science laboratory bound for Mars will draw
its electrical power either from a nuclear generator or solar arrays, and
local residents this week can weigh in on NASA's choice.
The space agency plans two public hearings today on the potential danger of
launching the Mars Science Laboratory with a plutonium-powered generator,
which is NASA's preferred method of powering the craft.
Launch of the big Mars rover is set for sometime between September and
November 2009 on an Atlas 5 rocket.
Safety studies by NASA and the Department of Energy show there is a 1 in 420
chance of an accident early in the flight resulting in a release of
radioactive material over communities near Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Two public hearings, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. today, will
give area residents a chance to hear NASA's explanation of the mission, the
dangers and the safety measures being taken by the government.
The three-hour sessions at the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa also
include time for people to speak in support of or opposition to the launch
of the new Mars rover.
The nuclear generator is similar to ones launched on past space missions,
including the launch earlier this year of the New Horizons probe bound for
Pluto and the 1997 launch of the Cassini probe now orbiting Saturn. Public
hearings are a routine step in the government's effort to inform the public
and get feedback before launch.
In the past, such missions have prompted protests of varying size and
intensity. Anti-nuclear protestors protesters have argued against the
mission on the basis that the danger to the public is too great and that the
science purposes touted by the space agency are a cover for plans to test
technologies that could ultimately become nuclear space weaponry.
"Time will likely prove us to be right as we say that fabricating and
launching nuclear power is too much of a risk and danger to this planet,"
said Bruce K. Gagnon, who is the leader of an anti-nuclear peace
organization that has repeatedly protested such launches. Gagnon said in an
e-mail interview that his group would fight this launch, too.
Past protests have not stopped NASA from launching probes carrying the
plutonium power plants, which are called Radioisotope Thermoelectric
Generator. The device generates electricity that powers the spacecraft's
science instruments, communications tools and other systems on the surface
NASA has a backup plan to outfit the Mars Science Lab with solar arrays to
do the same job if it is ultimately deemed that the nuclear generator should
not be used. Doing so would require the addition of some smaller
nuclear-powered heating devices, but those would carry a fraction of the
plutonium and pose substantially less risk.
The plutonium fuel is not the highly explosive kind used in weapons. It is a
different grade that is only dangerous to people if reduced to fine dust,
and the generator itself is designed to make sure that does not happen. The
generators are subjected to intense testing to make sure they will hold up
to violent rocket explosions. Pellets of plutonium, much like ceramic, are
designed not to break up even if they somehow escape the generator in a
The biggest danger for Brevard residents comes from an accident on the
launch pad or within a minute after liftoff. Studies found once the rocket
arcs out over the ocean, there is no chance of a plutonium release if it
crashed into the water.
If there is an accident, people living near the launch site would be told to
take shelter inside buildings until government detection teams determine
whether there was a radioactive release and whether residents are at risk.
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