February 5, 2003

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  No nukes in space

IN ALL OF the vast amount of news media attention on the tragedy of the space shuttle Columbia, there's a startling item that's been almost entirely overlooked: this disaster could have been much, much worse.

On Jan. 17 the Los Angeles Times reported that President George W. Bush has approved plans by NASA to build a nuclear-powered rocket. That would just be the latest expansion of the agency's Nuclear Systems Initiative, which examines the uses of nuclear energy in all aspects of space travel. The 1997 Cassini Project – a space probe to Jupiter – was launched with plutonium-powered radioisotope thermoelectric generators on board, and NASA wants to expand the use of those RTGs.

But as the painful human cost of the shuttle program (two catastrophic failures, 14 dead) shows, sending rockets into space is far from foolproof. Imagine if Columbia had been carrying highly radioactive plutonium: the deadly stuff would be scattered into the air across thousands of miles of the United States. The health impacts would be incalculable.

The second space shuttle disaster out of 113 flights ought to be a clarion call to activists worldwide: No nukes in space.