Nuclear Accident Risk From Shuttle Satellite Plant Is Small, NASA Says

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NASA officials said Friday the risk of a nuclear accident will be only slight when it launches an interplanetary satellite containing a plutonium power plant later this year from the space shuttle Atlantis.

In an environmental impact statement required by law, the space agency said health and environmental consequences of the “most probable” of accidents--a 1-in-10 million chance--would be small.

The inch-thick document was released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and an abstract was to be published in the Federal Register.

50 Pounds of Plutonium


The electric generator, holding nearly 50 pounds of plutonium oxide, will be aboard the Galileo spacecraft scheduled for launch from the shuttle in October for a two-year study of Jupiter.

According to one estimate, if that amount of plutonium were released into the atmosphere it would have about 10 times the radioactivity of the Soviet spy satellite that crashed into Canada in 1978. Plutonium is used in nuclear weapons as well as nuclear reactors.

The environmental impact statement calls for public comment over the succeeding 45 days before a final statement is issued.

‘Very Small Health Risks’

“An intensive analysis of the proposed action indicates that the possible health and environmental consequences of launch or mission anomalies pose small risks,” the statement says. “The accident estimated to be the most probable would pose very small health risks and very small probability of environmental contamination.”

A nuclear generator has not been carried aboard a space shuttle before, although the devices have been used on space probes and manned flights to the moon.

On the Galileo mission, the generator would be used to provide electricity to the space probe. The satellite does not have solar panels because it will travel too distant from the sun to draw energy.