Friday, July 22, 2011

Nukes in Space?

"If NASA persists in using nuclear power in space, the agency’s future is threatened," writes Karl Grossman — What Could Truly End the Space Program? A Nuclear Disaster Overhead. An excerpt:
    Between November 25 and December 15 NASA plans to launch for use on Mars a rover fueled with 10.6 pounds of plutonium, more plutonium than ever used on a rover.

    The mission has a huge cost: $2.5 billion.

    But if there is an accident before the rover is well on its way to Mars, and plutonium is released on Earth, its cost stands to be yet more gargantuan.

    NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for what it calls its Mars Science Laboratory Mission says that if plutonium is released on Earth, the cost could be as high as $1.5 billion to decontaminate each square mile of “mixed-use urban areas” impacted.

    What‘s the probability of an accident releasing plutonium? The NASA document says “the probability of an accident with a release of plutonium” is 1-in-220 “overall.”
    If you knew your chance of not surviving an airplane flight -- or just a drive in a car -- was 1 in 220, would you take that trip?
That figure is all the more alarming given the information, recently quoted on these pages, disclosed by Freeman Dyson in his review of two biographies of his mentor — The ‘Dramatic Picture’ of Richard Feynman:
    [W]hen Feynman was mortally ill with cancer, he served on the NASA commission investigating the Challenger disaster of 1986... He went to Washington and found what he had expected at the heart of the tragedy: a bureaucratic hierarchy with two groups of people, the engineers and the managers, who lived in separate worlds and did not communicate with each other. The engineers lived in the world of technical facts; the managers lived in the world of political dogmas.

    He asked members of both groups to tell him their estimates of the risk of disastrous failure in each Space Shuttle mission. The engineers estimated the risk to be of the order of one disaster in a hundred missions. The managers estimated the risk to be of the order of one disaster in a hundred thousand missions. The difference, a factor of a thousand between the two estimates, was never reconciled and never openly discussed. The managers were in charge of the operations and made the decisions to fly or not to fly, based on their own estimates of the risk. But the technical facts that Feynman uncovered proved that the managers were wrong and the engineers were right.
This also brings to mind Dead Kennedys' front-man Jello Biafra's "spoken word" (remember those?) classic — Why I'm glad the space shuttle blew up... The money quote:
    If the Challenger had made it home, things might now be much worse, if we were even still here at all. Because NASA’s plan was to send up the next space shuttle after the Challenger up with 46 lbs. of plutonium. And if that one had blown up, there’d be enough radiation in the air to cause cancer in as many as five billion people.

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Blogger Carl M. said...

Feynman said that his estimate for the odds of a loss of the shuttle during a mission based on talking to engineers was 1-in-100. That turned out to be fairly accurate (perhaps even overestimating the safety), as the shuttle did 135 missions in its time and lost 2.

3:17 PM  
Blogger love the girls said...

It seems it would be easy enough to store the plutonium for the flight in a blast proof container which could withstand explosion, reentry and impact.

11:52 PM  

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