Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: The Russian spacecraft described here crashed in the South Pacific near Easter Island Sunday night. First predictions were that it might impact in Australia, which caused a brief national emergency there.

The spacecraft contained nearly half a pound of plutonium fuel which would have provided electrical power to the Mars landing probe. The plutonium was encased in shielded radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), which were designed to survive a launch accident or accidental reentry like this one with little or no leakage. There were no reports of radiation leakage from the impact site.

Recovery of any debris is considered unlikely, as the ocean floor below the impact site is 18,000 feet below the ocean surface, too deep for most undersea vehicles.]

Global Russian Roulette

by Tooker Gomberg

Less than one millionth of a gram, an invisible particle, is a carcinogenic dose

Something fell from the sky Sunday night, and it wasn't a lucky star. News stories reported how the Mars space probe "harmlessly" crashed back to earth. Apparently, something went wrong, and instead of travelling sixty million miles to Mars it ended up in our own backyard.

Officials explained that there were four small plutonium containers on board, and they emphasized reassuringly that there was an "extremely unlikely" chance of the cannisters having broken open and spreading a small cloud of radioactivity.

That may sound comforting, but when you're dealing with plutonium, the stakes don't come any higher. Plutonium is the most toxic substance known. "It is so toxic that less than one millionth of a gram, an invisible particle, is a carcinogenic dose. One pound, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on Earth" says Dr. Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Increased lung cancer rates have been attributed to 1964 U.S. satellite crash

The launching of rockets containing plutonium is a deadly game of Russian Roulette. No less than the health of every living thing on the planet is at risk.

At the time of this writing, nobody knows if the plutonium container remained intact and sunk into the ocean, or if it spewed its lethal contents. In either case the plutonium will remain hotly radioactive for thousands of years.

And it's not just the Russians playing this potentially lethal game. The United States is even more enthusiastic about using plutonium in its rockets. NASA is planning to launch, next October, the Cassini mission to explore Saturn. On board would be 72.3 pounds of plutonium, more plutonium than has ever been sent into space. Cassini is slated to be launched aboard a Titan IV rocket, a rocket type that has been plagued with problems.

There are also plans afoot to use nuclear power for satellites, as well as for Star Wars, still alive though the name has changed from Strategic Defense Initiative to Ballistic Missile Defense.

The risks of mishap are real. In 1964 a U.S. satellite crashed to earth with 2.1 pounds of plutonium on board. It disintegrated and the plutonium was dispersed through the atmosphere scattering onto every continent and every latitude of the planet. Increased lung cancer rates have been attributed to that crash.

Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, estimates that the number of deaths from a Cassini mishap could run as high as 20 - 40 million people.

"(This week's) incident is a very important wakeup call." says Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York. "Major accidents are inevitable if nuclear materials continue to be sent into space." He points out that solar energy could supply the electricity in space instead of plutonium. "There is absolutely no need whatsoever for this risk to life on earth by the use of nuclear materials in space."

Angela Bischoff and Tooker Gomberg are (slowly) travelling by bike, foot, train and boat around the world in search of inspiring environmental stories. You can drop them an e-mail at, or check out their homepage at

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Albion Monitor November 23, 1996 (

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