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Much ado about Cassini's plutonium

Critics say launch could result in deadly disaster

October 10, 1997
Web posted at: 7:11 p.m. EDT (2311 GMT)

From Correspondent John Zarrella

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- Three canisters containing 72 pounds of radioactive plutonium, which NASA plans to blast into space, are causing an uproar.

Last weekend, more than 1,000 protesters brought their message to the gates of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station: They don't want these canisters launched into space as part of NASA's Cassini probe to Saturn.

"I'm not anti-nuclear. I'm not anti-technology. I'm not anti-space program. But I'm anti-stupid, and this is stupid," summed up protester Harold Courtright.

vxtreme CNN's John Zarrella explains the controversy behind the Cassini space probe launch

NASA says the plutonium canisters are necessary to fuel Cassini on its seven-year voyage to explore Saturn, one of the biggest, costliest interplanetary probes ever launched by the space agency.

But critics of the project are convinced that launching that much plutonium into space is just asking for disaster. They believe that thousands, and perhaps millions, of people could be exposed to lethal doses of radiation if something goes wrong.


Despite the protests, and threats of additional civil disobedience to block the launch, NASA is standing firm and says it will go ahead with the mission as planned. Cassini will be launched before dawn Monday morning.

This will be the 24th time generators containing plutonium have been used in space exploration, and there has never been an accident. The U.S. Department of Energy says it has conducted extensive impact tests to ensure that the canisters remain intact in the event of a catastrophic accident.

But even if the launch goes well, the controversy is not likely to recede. That's because in 1999 Cassini will fly by the Earth in a maneuver to use the planet's gravity to catapult it toward Saturn.

NASA says there is only a one-in-a-million chance that the spacecraft would re-enter the atmosphere. But not everyone in comforted by those long odds.

"How do you put a number on human stupidity?" says Michio Kaku, a professor of nuclear physics. "You can build a car with seat belts and anti-lock brakes and air bags -- a car so safe there's one-in-a-million (chance) for an accident -- and then some bozo is going to drive it right over a cliff."


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