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Topics Homepage> Nuclear-powered spacecraft should be banned by the international community

Nuclear-powered spacecraft should be banned by the international community

PRO (4 assertions)

1) Project Prometheus was established in 2003 by NASA to develop nuclear-powered systems for long-duration space mission and is still going on. The Project Prometheus goal, a 100-kilowatt reactor, is a thousand times the energy output of a moderate-sized solar panel like the ones used on the Pathfinder mission for the Sojourner rover. It is the difference between a desk light and a stadium lighting system.
2) In 1962, NASA's chief of nuclear energy stated, The energy available in radioisotopes is many orders of magnitude larger than that available in batteries, and thus they constitute a concentrated energy source that may be used for space purposes. Radioisotope power is reliable. Reactors for nuclear power have the capability to generate more than 100 kilowatts of electricity, making them much more powerful than other forms of energy generation in space.

1. Assertion: Nuclear spacecrafts disrupt the operation of other satellites.

Reasoning/Evidence: When a nuclear spacecraft is launched, it sends out a signal which can easily disrupt other satellites' operation.
To minimize mass and cost, orbiting reactors are largely unshielded. They thus produce strong emissions of radiation that can make it difficult for astronomical satellites to detect signals from distant sources.

This phenomenon, which was kept secret by the U.S. government until 1988, has already significantly interfered with the work of orbiting gamma ray detection systems such as that on board the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Solar Maximum Mission. Gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation of high frequency, so it is vitally important to have these types of detection systems. If these systems fail or even do not completely work, the lives of astronauts and also the success of the mission are at risk.

These interruptions of astronomical observations afflicted the Solar Maximum Mission spacecraft an average of eight times a day for much of 1987 and early 1988, when the nuclear spacecrafts were operating. Similar interference with the gamma-ray burst detector on board the Japanese Ginga satellite effectively blinded it during about a fifth of the same period. Emissions from the Soviet nuclear spacecraft daily disrupt the operation of scientific instruments flown by groups from nations including the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan and West Germany. This is sourced from the Scientific American.

2. Assertion: When accidental re-entries occur, they scatter nuclear waste which is extremely hazardous.

Reasoning/Evidence: Even at the launch of a nuclear spacecraft itself, accidents are very likely to occur and harm human beings. A Soviet surveillance satellite (Kosmos 954) reentered the earth's atmosphere over the Northwest Territories in 1978, littering radioactive debris over thousands of square miles. Two have reentered accidentally. Decontamination cost the Canadian government approximately $10 million. Proposed U.S. nuclear-powered spacecraft would produce hundreds of times as much radioactivity.

Judge, you may think that having these spacecrafts accidently re-enter Earth is only a temporary thing; however, it is actually the opposite. The problem with radioactivity is that it spreads via wind, rain, etc. This means that the whole WORLD will be affected by this, not just the area where the spacecraft landed.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plutonium enters the bloodstream via the lungs, then moves throughout the body and into the bones, liver, and other organs. It generally stays in those places for decades, subjecting surrounding organs and tissues to a continual bombardment of alpha radiation and greatly increasing the risk of cancer, especially lung cancer, liver cancer and bone sarcoma.

3. Assertion: Nuclear-powered spacecraft often collide with orbital debris.

Reasoning/Evidence: Even those reactors that are launched or later boosted into a long-lived orbit present hazards because they can collide with orbital debris. A collision between a nuclear reactor and one of the thousands of sizable objects traveling at a relative velocity of 10 kilometers per second could yield an abundance of harmful radioactive fragments. Many of them would be driven into the lower orbits utilized by manned spacecraft and back into the earth's atmosphere within a few years.

Unfortunately, most of the nuclear-powered spacecraft in orbit now are in those parts of space near the earth that are most densely populated with debris, meaning that the possibility of a collision is extremely great. A disabling collision with a space rock or a piece of space junk could send a spacecraft hurtling toward Earth at a speed of over 50,000 miles per hour.

4. Assertion: Nuclear-powered spacecraft has an extensive history of accidents and failures, as proven especially by the Americans and Soviets.

Reasoning/Evidence: When these nuclear spacecrafts exit our atmosphere, they immediately have the potential to fail. When they DO fail, they have accidents that can have life-threatening effects to everyone on our earth.

About 10 nuclear-powered spacecraft have crashed worldwide, though Soviet secrecy makes specific numbers hard to get. "Space technology can and does fail," said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. "When you mix plutonium into the equation, we think you're asking for trouble. It's not theoretical. It's real."

In 1996, Russia's Mars 96 spacecraft fell back into Earth's atmosphere and broke apart, scattering debris across the Pacific Ocean, Chile, and Bolivia. The plutonium was never recovered or decontaminated.

In addition, the nuclear reactor from Kosmos 1402, a Russian spy satellite, broke up over the Atlantic Ocean east of Brazil. None of the uranium was recovered from Earth's atmosphere.

In what is often described as the worst nuclear space accident, Russia's Kosmos 954 spy satellite crashed in an area of northwestern Canada. Most of the uranium-powered reactor is thought to have broken down into fine dust and spread into the atmosphere. This is sourced from the St. Petersburg Times.

CON (4 assertions)

1) Cassini, NASA's nuclear spacecraft exploring Saturn, carries 72 pounds of plutonium in the form of three radioactive batteries. If an accident happened, scientists say, plutonium contamination could lead to 200,000 to 900,000 deaths. This is sourced from the New York Times.
2) According to Michio Kaku, a physicist of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, a nuclear spacecraft has about a 1-in-20 chance of colliding with orbital debris.

International community: The International Council on Science (ICSU)
Nuclear-powered spacecraft: Vehicle, vessel, or machine designed to fly in outer space, using a form of energy produced by an atomic reaction using plutonium

List of Failed Nuclear Spacecraft Attempts:

  1. SNAP-10A (American nuclear-powered satellite): in November 1979 the SNAP-10A began shedding, eventually losing 50 pieces of traceable debris
  2. Launch failure, 25 April 1973. Launch failed and the reactor fell into the Pacific Ocean north of Japan. Radiation was detected by US air sampling airplanes.
  3. Kosmos 367 (04564 / 1970-079A), 3 October 1970, failed 110 hours after launch, moved to higher orbit.
  4. Kosmos 954. The satellite failed to boost into a nuclear-safe storage orbit as planned. Nuclear materials re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on 24 January 1978 and left a trail of radioactive pollution over an estimated 124,000 square kilometres of Canada's Northwest Territories.
  5. Kosmos 1402. Failed to boost into storage orbit in late 1982. The reactor core was separated from the remainder of the spacecraft and was the last piece of the satellite to return to Earth, landing in the South Atlantic Ocean on 7 February 1983.
  6. Kosmos 1900. The primary system failed to eject the reactor core into storage orbit, but the backup managed to push it into an orbit 80 km (50 mi) below its intended altitude.

1. Assertion: Using nuclear-powered spacecraft is not dangerous, and because it is the best option for other reasons, it should not be banned.

Evidence: In 1997, the Cassini probe was launched. Many people were worried about alleged dangerous effects if it failed to launch. However, it was successfully launched. Moreover, even if it was launched, the increase in radioactivity that would result from the destruction of Cassini would have been equivalent to a 15,000th of a normal lifetime absorption of radioactivity. There is more radioactivity in a tanning booth or dental X-ray than the destruction of this nuclear-powered spacecraft.

Policy analyst Steven Aftergood stated, "All RTGs have operated as designed, both in normal operations and accident conditions. RTGs were designed carefully with consideration for the accident environments that might be experienced during every phase of the launch. The design requirement is to protect public and worker health and safety during all phases of operations during launch and accident conditions."

2. Assertion: Other forms of energy have been defective, whereas nuclear power has worked and is very practical.

Evidence: The 1997 Sojourner rover on Mars stopped functioning after a couple of days because its solar panels had become dust-coated and ineffective, not because of any equipment failure. A nuclear rover under development by NASA for launch in 2009 would be able to travel hundreds of miles and last for months to years on the Martian surface, and its sensors could have orders of magnitudes more power, leading to much more data gained.

Nuclear rocketry, or nuclear thermal propulsion, is a practical method that uses propellant, such as hydrogen, heated to extreme temperatures and ejected at high velocities as in a conventional rocket. Unlike a conventional rocket, the propellant's energy would come from direct or indirect nuclear energy, and thus be extremely more powerful. It would allow very fast changes in velocities, and would be able to make a trip to Mars in a few days at its most advanced form.

It also has use in rover missions and even in a unique concept called a hopper, which would be able to use Martian atmosphere to propel itself from site to site to conduct research. An advantage of this system lies in the fact that any gas will do for propulsion. This means that a craft on Mars could use the indigenous Martian atmosphere or water ice to refuel, extending its lifetime and reducing cost and increasing efficiency by orders of magnitudes.

3. Assertion: Nuclear-powered spacecraft sustains the highest power requirements over the longest periods of time.

Evidence: According to Dr. David W. Miller and John Keesee, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the most feasible power sources for missions are: batteries; fuel cells; nuclear power sources; and photovoltaic panels. However, batteries and fuel cells are only effective for about ten days. Only photovoltaic panels and nuclear power systems are currently capable of sustaining power throughout durations of months or even years.

However, nuclear power is still a better option than photovoltaic panels because nuclear power systems can sustain much higher power requirements, allowing for missions with power-intensive instruments (like the Curiosity mission, which uses a rock-drilling laser that uses in excess of one million watts) to be undertaken. Since nuclear power systems can sustain much higher power loads than solar systems, they are used on missions requiring at least one kilowatt of power for a duration of greater than one month.

The Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft launched in 1977 with Plutonium as their source of electricity. 34 years later they claim these two spacecraft have enough power to last them until at least 2020. That means they'll have had enough power to last them at least 42 years. It obviously offers enough power to literally send transmissions across the entire solar system. No other power system can match nuclear power systems' power generation over time capacity.

4. Assertion: Nuclear propulsion could dramatically decrease travel time to the planets which results to the astronauts being less exposed to dangerous materials.

Evidence: A round trip to Mars could be accomplished in half the time with fusion power, which would lessen the crew's exposure to the hazards of weightlessness and cosmic radiation. A nuclear-propelled craft could conceivably be used repeatedly for round trips to the Moon and planets, cutting down the cost of operating such a long-term transit system. With many times the efficiency of chemical rockets, small fission reactors could travel further and faster, allowing humans to explore Mars and potentially travel to the outer reaches of the system.

As policy analyst Steven Aftergood reported in 1989: for all practical purposes, nuclear reactors are required when moderate to high levels of continuous power are required for an extended period.