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

Nuclear-powered spacecraft should be banned by the international community


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.