Fear of fall-out threatens voyage to Saturn

Safety in space: US scientists raise nuclear power alarm as Russian space station hits trouble again

The launch of a Nasa module bound for the planet Saturn, originally scheduled for early next month, may be threatened following claims that the US government is understating the risks associated with its nuclear power source.

The anti-nuclear lobby in the United States is mobilising itself to block the Cassini mission after hearing claims from a former senior Nasa official that an unforeseeable mishap with the module could shower parts of the Earth with radioactive debris that could threaten millions with cancer.

Alan Kohn, who was Nasa's emergency preparedness director for the launchings of both the Ulysses craft towards the Sun in 1990 and the Galileo ship to Jupiter one year earlier, was due to underline his concerns at a Washington press conference yesterday.

The focus of Mr Kohn's worries are the plutonium batteries that will power the Cassini as it penetrates deep space, far away from the rays of the sun that might otherwise have been its energy source. Altogether, the Cassini will bear 72lb (32kg) of plutonium in three batteries.

By comparison, the Ulysses carried 24lb (11kg) of plutonium and the Galileo 48lb (22kg). However, plutonium-based power cells have been built into scores of spacecraft, including satellites and Nasa's Apollo rockets. A battery from Apollo 13 was lost on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere and at present lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Nasa is adamant that every precaution is being taken to eliminate possible scenarios where a disastrous failure could release the plutonium into the Earth's atmosphere. The batteries, for instance, are encased in iridium, a metal of extraordinary density.

Mr Kohn is not impressed. He told the New York Times: "Men and machines are fallible. If you keep launching these things, eventually you're bound to have an accident. It's inevitable.

"Nasa says this whole thing is safe. Nobody can make such a statement. I've seen too many rockets blow up."

There are three moments during the projected mission that fire concern. There is the launch itself. That was set for 6 October, but has since been delayed because of a recent accident on the launchpad that damaged some of the craft's protective layer. That incident has itself rung alarm bells.

Thereafter, however, risk of radioactive pollution will remain during an orbit of Earth by Cassini and later, in August 1999, when it is due once more to fly close to the Earth's atmosphere.

Among those backing up Mr Kohn is Dr Michio Kaku, a physicist at the City University of New York. While Nasa has put 120 deaths on Earth as the worst possible scenario, Dr Kaku believes the number of deaths through radioactive exposure following a catastrophe could reach more than 200,000.

Anxious that Mr Kohn's campaign should not ground the $3.4bn Cassini mission, the government is moving to offer counter-evidence. "Our safety analysis is two-feet thick," a spokeswoman for the Energy Department told the New York Times. "There is absolutely no accident sequence that results in huge amounts of plutonium being released."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West, performing in New York last week, has been the subject of controversy as rock's traditional headline slot at Glastonbury is lost once again
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Life and Style
Drinking - often heavily - is a running theme throughout HBO's Game of Thrones adaptation
food + drink
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living