Are there any nuclear powered satellites?

■ In October, 25 kilos of plutonium will be sent into space, enough to contaminate all of humanity, but not the only garbage in space

Marc Miller

D.he Californian "Project Censored" publishes an annual list of the ten most scandalous cases of misinformation, news suppression or censorship in the USA.

In its list for 1988, the organization names four out of ten cases as environmental threats or scandals; Third on the overall list is the special space flight “Project Galileo” planned by NASA for October 1989. Among other things, the probe is said to carry 25 kg of plutonium, an amount whose even distribution around the globe can wipe out all of humanity - and as we now know, accidents are possible ...

The editor-in-chief of the 'Technology Review' (Boston), Marc Miller, deals in this article with the fact that already nuclear-powered satellites and test stations, radioactive waste and a few tons of accident debris orbits the earth at different heights and asks the question why little is to be learned.

In the autumn of last year, Soviet space technicians lost radio contact with the dying Cosmos 1900, which was orbiting the earth with a charge of presumably 25 kg of uranium. Since then, nothing has been said about the condition of the security systems, the task of which was to prevent the earth from being endangered by debris. As the satellite circled the earth more and more powerlessly, people below fearfully wondered where the radioactive contamination would come from. Up to two hours before landing, it could theoretically have happened anywhere except near the poles.

History teaches that there were enough reasons for such concern.

The United States shot up 23 satellites between 1961 and 1977, powered by radioactive material. Four of them failed. When the Transit-5B-3 navigation satellite failed to reach orbit in 1964, its power generator disintegrated in the atmosphere, releasing 17,000 curies of plutonium 238. This incident alone tripled the earth's total plutonium 238 pollution. In addition, the total number of all plutonium isotopes, primarily derived from above-ground weapon tests, increased by four percent.

In two other known mishaps, heat-powered RT (radio isotope thermoelectric) generators fell into the Pacific Ocean. In one of the accidents in 1968, two of these generators crashed and it took two months before they were found. The RT generator, which came down on an Apollo moon mission in 1970, has never been found. In 1965 a 500 watt "snapshot" reactor had already failed, up until then the only American reactor in space. “At an altitude of 1,250 km, it continues to circle and scatter debris of unknown quality,” reports the National Journal ‘.

The Soviet register is also terrifying. According to the Journal, "the Soviets reported six failures from a total of 39 nuclear energy sources in space since 1965". Most of these reactors are intended for the power supply of the so-called Rorsat program (Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite) - that is, for Soviet spy satellites. When Cosmos 954 re-entered the atmosphere in 1978, tiny uranium spheres were scattered across Canada. Joseph Treen, a dedicated journalist who has studied and published on nuclear satellites, reported that the cleanup after the uranium shower cost $ 14 million, of which the Soviet Union only paid $ 3 million. This incident led to the proposal by then US President Jimmy Carter to ban nuclear reactors in orbit; however, the idea was not taken up. The Cosmos accident ultimately led to the fact that the Soviets had built three supposedly absolutely reliable safety systems into the Cosmos 1900. Only one of them worked last - two weeks before the calculated impact on earth.

According to the American scientific association FAS (Federation of American Scientists) "about ten to twenty percent of all missions (which place nuclear energy in space) suffered breakdowns or accidents of all kinds". Since we hardly know anything about how radioactivity works in space, these breakdowns are of course particularly worrying.

Few events of this kind have been publicly discussed in such depth, usually the military use of atomic energy is hidden under a thick veil of secrecy - for reasons of "national security". The result, in heaven as on earth, is radioactive contamination.

The nuclear accidents on earth are documented in more detail. A hidden reason for the lack of automatic safety systems in the Chernobyl reactor is the fact that it was copied from older models whose job it was to produce bomb material as quickly as possible, regardless of the environment or people. And before 1986 die-hard Soviet political bureaucrats certainly had no sympathy whatsoever for warnings that dangerous construction errors existed. Valery Legasov was among the few who had tried unsuccessfully to be heard; the nuclear scientist led the investigation after the disaster until his suicide last year

The map of the United States is littered with large amounts of radioactive waste - waste from nuclear weapons production. In an article for the Technology Review, authors Robert Alvarez and Arjun Makhijani wrote: “The Department of Energy operates these facilities in complete secrecy, with no control whatsoever by Congress or any environmental institutions.” In the same issue of the magazine comes John Ahearne, chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Facilities, which the ministry set up only last year, also spoke. "A veil of secrecy surrounds the weapons program," said Ahearne. It prevents the Department from reviewing the implementation of the improvements to be made by commercial power plants following the Three Miles Island disaster. Ahearne emphasizes that "no group or body controls the practices of the Department of Energy, either inside or outside the Department".

It is estimated that there are currently 50 radioactive satellites orbiting the globe, and for both superpowers, the lack of public control is an integral part of the nuclear pollution of space. For example, the industry magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology reported in the fall of 1988 that "the United States government commissioned a study of the potential public health consequences of nuclear energy space projects." So far so good. However, the results of the study were subsequently declared classified on the grounds that their publication could harm “national security interests”.

Even with the Soviet authorities, the opening up is not that far off - despite perestroika and the apparent willingness to publish details of the Chernobyl accident. The New York Times and other newspapers recently reported that gamma rays emanating from unshielded Soviet nuclear reactors in space severely disrupted US and Japanese trials studying the sun and some stars. And the danger is growing. Arthur Reetz, an experienced NASA scientist, told the New York Times: “In the past, there were no more than two or three such disturbances per day. Today there are ten or more. ”Meanwhile, these emissions threaten the gamma-ray observatory planned for 1990, a $ 500 million project.

According to the New York Times, Soywet officials have refused to comment. And otherwise cooperative Soviet scientists who recently visited the United States refused to talk about the radioactive radiation from unshielded Rorsat reactors. Where did the Soviet silence persist in this case? Because these reactors are used to generate electricity for military satellites - specifically for spy satellites whose attention is directed to the American navy. Symptomatic of the obfuscation tactics are the vague formulations that characterize even the most reliable reports of radioactive material in space. Steven Aftergood, for example, director of the organization "Bridge the Gap", which works against the nuclearization of space, knows everything about the Soviet program that the West can know about it. Nevertheless, when he writes about Soviet satellite reactors, he also uses phrases like this: “The Topaz reactor is apparently still in use within the Rorsat program. The presumable The Topaz has an output of ten kW ... ”(emphasis added by me, M.M.). To put it mildly, his conclusions that "details of the Soviet nuclear energy program in space are sparse and often contradicting the public" seem justified.

Of course, secrecy is not a Soviet monopoly. Two US RT generators that were launched before 1977 are still in space today. They circle 35,000 kilometers above the earth's surface and serve a secret surveillance task. And in a footnote (because the information cannot be verified), Aftergood quotes another author - who in turn quotes an informant who remains anonymous - with the information that RT generators also supply some US military satellites with power. 60,000 scrap parts

Another catastrophe caused by the military threatens and increases the environmental dangers posed by radioactive satellites in space: the roughly 60,000 pieces of junk that orbit the earth. A large part of this junk consists of dead satellites, engines, satellite shields, explosion particles and direct waste. But a no small part of the junk circulating in narrower orbits - where the Rorsats work comes from Soviet killer satellite test programs between 1968 and 1972 (Asat).

Since 1976 the Soviets have moved their Asat tests to more distant orbits, but that too, as Nicholas Johnson of Teledyne-Brown Engineering Company notes, has its own risks. To prevent dead Rorsats from re-entering the atmosphere, the Soviets plan to shoot them into a 950 km high storage orbit. However, this area is already the most densely “populated” in space. As Joel Primack, physicist at Santa Cruz University in California, states: "Over a ton of non-working, but still radioactive reactors orbit the earth" at this altitude. (The first safety mechanism from Cosmos 1900 would have catapulted the satellite into higher orbit; this was made impossible by the loss of radio contact with ground control.)

NASA, the Department of Defense and other agencies are concerned about this increase in non-nuclear pollution in space as it jeopardizes space shuttle flights and other future programs. In 1983 a window of the space shuttle was demolished by such a piece of junk, which was racing around the world at a speed of eight kilometers per second. Nasa expert Don Kessler believes that such a part also caused the Cosmos explosion in 1823; fortunately no radioactive material was involved.

Over the past year, threats to civil and military space programs led the National Security Council to commission a study on space debris. His report was published in April 1989; however, it is a bad sign for the general awareness in this matter that this agency, which is characterized by a notorious obsession with secrecy, is at the same time the organization that coordinates all space users ... As bad as the radioactive contamination of space is already - it exists the danger that it can become much more serious. The directors of the nuclear policy program at Santa Cruz University, Primack and Hirsch, told the American Association for Economic Development AAAS in January that “there have been revelations in the last few days of a test program of a new generation of Soviet Topaz reactors “Speak. One has to fear that this will motivate the USA to follow suit, so that they will shoot their own reactors into space. But even if you leave this possible alibi aside, the two Californian scientists say, the fact remains that the US Department of Energy announced its intention to build a prototype of the SP-100 space reactor for ground testing "several weeks ago" without seeking an opinion on possible environmental impacts.

In both reports one again encounters the pattern of secrecy and vagueness. Regarding the "signs" that the Soviets are building a new generation of Rorsats, Aftergood notes that "reports in the late 1970s of the improved 500 kilowatts of electricity generated by the Topaz reactors were of little value." In the west, pressure for more space reactors is coming from the military. A study by the US National Research Council NRC on "Improved energy sources for space tasks" comes to the conclusion that nuclear power could also be used for routine space work such as lunar stations. Above all, it is clear that the Strategic Defense Initiative - Starwars - would definitely have to work with nuclear reactors. This is exactly what puts the Pentagon in the somewhat strange position of defending the Soviet reactors against criticism from Congress, Treen claims, even though they are used to spy on the US Navy.

It is significant enough that the Research Council study followed a very tight schedule, in which there was no longer any place in the study of the environmental hazards of nuclear-powered space flights. Nevertheless, it did at least refer to risks for the system itself, albeit without reference to any further consequences. According to the report, some of the energy systems under investigation "may not be practical if they emit significant amounts". The report also notes that chemical lasers have been proposed “although little is known about possible developments in flowing gas clouds in terms of expansion, distribution, ionization, stimulus delivery and absorption, radioactive emission or interaction with surfaces, background environment, sensors and armament systems ".

The United States is building the SP-100 reactor (output: 100 kW), which is equipped with 150 kg of uranium as a fuel element, specifically for the power supply of the Starwar systems. General Electric is in the process of developing a prototype that will make its first test flight in the mid-1990s. In addition, the possibilities for multi-megawatt reactors in space are being investigated. And since no other US agency has yet announced a need for power plants stationed in space, SDI is arguably the only customer. (Ironically, the US, which was the first to develop space reactors, dropped the project altogether in the early 1970s. "Nobody knew what to do with it," says Aftergood.)

According to Aftergood, the SDI reactors would be "much stronger and more durable than the Rorsat reactors". Therefore, they would also produce a great deal more radioactive material - "at least 159 times more long-lived isotopes".

The SDI plans are also particularly dangerous because they require space weapons over the launch sites. Primack believes that this means nothing other than that “a large number of nuclear reactors, all of which are individually tens of times more powerful than the Rorsat reactors that are already circling today, move their orbit over almost every point on earth”.

The US government's audit office also said that the current SP-100 reactor models lacked key technical safety data, that it was too heavy to be shot up and at the same time too fragile for military use. According to the New York Times, the examining authority also complained that "engineers have extrapolated well beyond the verifiable data" and presented a design that was "burdened with a high risk of breakdowns". For their study, the agency had called on ten experts, including scientists from the Air Force and two leading nuclear laboratories, namely Los Alamos and Oak Ridge. However, the results were kept secret and only made public through the organization "Bridge the Gap".Afterhood says they had the study from informants directly from the reactor program itself. Atomic arms race in space

With the nuclear arms race accelerating above the atmosphere, Democratic Congressman George Brown recently warned: "If the use of nuclear reactors in space goes unchecked, there could be hundreds of nuclear power plants orbiting the earth in the twenty-first century ... Unless we prevent nuclear energy sources exist above our head, then we may wake up one day to the fact that something like that falls on it. "

Brown supports a proposal put forward by scientists from both nations to ban nuclear energy sources in space. For the Soviet side, Roald Sagdejew represents this movement, director of the “Committee of Soviet Scientists against the Nuclear Threat”. Sagdejew is by no means a loner, but head of the space research institute at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. On the American side, Frank von Hippel, a physicist at Princeton University and chairman of the FAS scientific association, announced the proposal. The idea was made public on the very day the Soviets announced they had lost control of Cosmos 1900 - an eloquent coincidence.

The Scientific Association also believes that as far as civilian missions are concerned, solar energy will be a more appropriate and safer source of energy in orbit in the near future. Sagdejew said that future surveillance and control satellites could also be operated with solar energy.

But even in the very unlikely event that the two governments accept this ban, it would only affect reactors orbiting the earth. Neither the RT generators nor nuclear power plants that are permanently stationed in space (i.e. not circling) would be affected.

It seems to the proponents of this proposal for a ban that the most important thing is to stop programs like Starwars, which would force the arms race into space. Her focus is less on the dangers of nuclear energy per se for the environment; they seem to be relatively unconcerned about the risks to the earth from nuclear-powered space missions.

Therefore, such a ban would not prevent the Galileo flight planned for the end of the year. This spacecraft would be powered by the US's first known RT generator in space since 1977. With his flight to Jupiter, Galileo would endanger the earth especially with radioactivity at takeoff.

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger within the first flight seconds after take-off makes fears appear justified for the launch of Galileo, which is said to have at least 20 kg of plutonium on board in two RT generators. Your safety systems are sufficient for a pressure of 1,000 kg per square inch (6.4 cm2), but accidents with the SART can generate nine times as high a pressure.

Since 1986 the newspaper 'The Nation' has warned in vain about the plutonium aboard the Galileo, which will be only 850 km above the earth's surface when it first orbits the earth.

In return for their efforts, the magazine received the annual award for publishing the most effectively suppressed news of the year. She received the award twice for this: both times for the same story.

Marc Miller is the author of the book "The Irony of Victory" published in 1988 (University of Illinois Press)

1 Valery Alexejewitsch Legassow, Soviet nuclear physicist, deputy director of the Moscow Mendeleev Institute, was head of the Soviet Chernobyl Investigation Commission. He committed suicide on the second anniversary of the reactor disaster. One month after his death, 'Pravda' published excerpts from his records, which represent a radical settlement with the development of atomic energy in the Soviet Union. ("A generation of engineers grew up who understood their work well, but did not approach the plants themselves and their safety systems critically ..." "Frequent faults in the most important lines, poorly functioning valves, defective coolant channels in the RBKM reactor - all of this was repeated year after year ... ”) The magazine 'Kommune' (Frankfurt) has documented excerpts from 'Prawda' in its issue 7/88.