* The NationalAeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) recently launched a space probe to Pluto as a part of its New Horizon mission. The New Horizon probe, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, carries a plutonium-fueled Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) prepared by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL).
The RTG, commonly referred to as a nuclear battery, creates electric energy from the radioactive decay of plutonium. New Horizon's RTG contains 24 pounds of plutonium-238 encased in aluminum. The RTG does not power the New Horizons space probe on its flight to Pluto. Rather, the plutonium generator will supply electricity to the probe's instruments after it lands on Pluto.
The plutonium was shipped to INL from Department of Energy (DOE) sites in Tennessee and New Mexico. A new Space and Security Power Systems Facility was built at INL to house the work being done on the plutonium. INL used its new facility to assemble and test the RTG.
There is debate as to the safety risks associated with sending nuclear materials up to space. Alice Caponiti, nuclear material and safety manager at the DOE Office of Space and Defense Power Systems, said that the risk to the population due to an early launch accident would be low because of the small amount of nuclear materials in the RTG and the remote location of the launch pad.
Critics of the space nuclear program disagree. Bruce Gagnon, of theGlobal Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, said, "one thing we know is that space technology can and does fail and when you mix deadly plutonium into the equation, you are asking for a catastrophe."
The NASA Environmental Impact Statement for New Horizons states that three out of the 25 United States space missions that used a plutonium-fueled RTG have met with mishaps. The worst accident occurred in 1964 when a launched satellite failed to achieve orbital velocity and reentered the earth's atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. It carried a RTG containing 2.1 pounds of plutonium, which was going to supply the satellite with energy. During the fall, the RTG disintegrated spreading plutonium across the northern hemisphere. If a similar accident were to occur with the New Horizons probe, which contains more than ten times the amount of plutonium, NASA estimates that the cost for decontaminating the areas where plutonium falls would cost up to $1.3 billion per square mile.
Despite the cost and risk associated with nuclear power, NASA intends to continue to power its space probes with plutonium-fueled generators. The United States also plans to expand its use of nuclear energy in space through the $3 billion Prometheus project, which is intended to develop atomic-powered rockets.
In support of Prometheus, DOE planes to expand plutonium production at INL. Activists are concerned that the increased contamination due to INL's participation in the space nuclear program will be left to pollute the environment. Jeremy Maxand, of the Snake River Alliance, said, "We have seen how the government places a higher priority on plutonium than people, and we will fight against the production of this poison in Idaho to the end."