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Dozens arrested in protest of plutonium-fueled space mission

protesters October 4, 1997
Web posted at: 8:14 p.m. EDT (0014 GMT)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- A Saturday protest against NASA's upcoming launch of a plutonium-powered spacecraft ended with the arrests of several dozen people.

Hundreds gathered outside the fence surrounding the pad where the Cassini probe is scheduled to be launched October 13 for a seven-year trip to Saturn. At the end of the rally, five members of the group Grandmothers for Peace walked through the main gates of the facility and were arrested by Air Force guards.

Other protesters threw pieces of carpet over the barbed-wire fence, and about 20 people were arrested when they attempted to climb over.

The Cassini rocket will be powered by 72 pounds of plutonium -- the most ever rocketed into space. Protesters say that if the rocket explodes it could sprinkle deadly poison for hundreds of miles.

"Winds can blow (plutonium) into Disney World, Universal City, into the citrus industry and destroy the economy of central Florida," said Michio Kaku, a protesting physics professor from New York. He claimed that casualties could run as high as a million people if there were an accident.

NASA uses solar power for most projects, including the Mir Space Station, but says Saturn is too far from the sun for that to be an efficient power source. Plutonium has been used on previous missions, including the Galileo probe that was launched in 1989.

NASA maintains there is little danger because the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) on Cassini have been tested to resist intense heat. Other government officials agree. "It cannot be exploded like a bomb," said Beverly Cook of the Energy Department. "It is an alpha emitter. Alpha radiation can be stopped by a piece of paper."

Protesters maintain that the material is highly toxic, and downplayed NASA's safety assurances. "Jimmy the Greek would say: Look at the track record," Kaku said. "The track record is one out of 20 booster rockets blow up on launch ... Ten percent of our space probes actually come down."

The Cassini rocket is scheduled to reach Saturn's atmosphere on July 1, 2004, when it will begin a four year period of data gathering. It also will send a probe to the surface of Saturn's moon Titan -- the most distant landing ever attempted, according to NASA.


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