Saturday NASA launch: Potential radioactive risks to an unknowing population

11/23/11 Doug Driscoll
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NASA plans to launch the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity as early as Saturday. The mission will place a rover on the surface to search for signs of environmental and chemical conditions that may have supported microbial life. However, in the search for life on other planets, there may also be some risk to life right here on earth.

Curiosity will include 10.6 pounds of Plutonium 238, a relatively “hot” synthesized isotope used for propulsion and heating purposes. Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury. He has been investigating the dangers of nuclear contaminations since the Three Mile Island meltdown. He says his views on the potential dangers to the public are based on real-world odds.

One millionth of a gram of PU-238 is fatal to humans, and NASA’s environmental impact statements describe a significant portion of central Florida being effected if an accident were to occur at Cape Canaveral.

But NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel said his five year old son is 12 miles from the launch site, and he’s not worried. He said if there is a radioactive release, people should stay indoors and turn off their air conditioners, because Pu-238's radiation cannot penetrate even a sheet of paper. In 1964, one aborted mission released 2.1 pounds of plutonium. Grossman says this accident was felt worldwide, and has been connected to health concerns by a noted physician specializing in radioactive sciences.

Grossman wrote the book “The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet.” His articles on the subject were included in Project Censored’s Top Ten Censored Stories in the late 1990’s. Grossman says that the public is not aware of the potential fallout and that with proper planning and safer technologies, NASA can implement these programs without risk to an unknowing population.

Though scheduled for this Saturday, the launch window for Curiosity extends out to December 18th. Grossman continues to lecture on the perils of nuclear contaminations, and is a contributor for the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.

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