The co-chairs of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space & Technology Committee were cheerleaders for the use of nuclear power in space at a hearing at which they presided over last week titled “Accelerating Deep Space Travel with Space Nuclear Propulsion.”
The advocacy of Representatives Don Beyer and Eddie Bernice Johnson for nukes in space was strongly criticized in a subsequent interview by Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.
Representative Don Beyer opened the October 20th hearing in Washington by declaring: “Space nuclear propulsion can produce thrust far more efficiently than conventional chemical systems, allowing for shorter tip times to Mars. Why does this matter? One reason is that shortening the trip reduces the risk of space radiation exposure to our astronauts.”
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas stated: “For decades, the space community has identified nuclear propulsion as a required and enabling technology for our human exploration goals. Even the best chemical propulsion capabilities of today mean long travel times to and from Mars.”
Witnesses testifying before the subcommittee included those from the aerospace industry including Michael French, vice president for space systems of the Aerospace Industries Association. He said his association “is proud to represent the largest and most diverse coalition of aerospace companies in the United States, an industry that generates $909 billion in economic output and supports 2.1 million employees across the country.”
There were no witnesses invited to the hearing who are critical of the use of nuclear power in space. Gagnon has been coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space since its formation in 1992. Based in Maine, it is the leading international organization opposing the use of nuclear power in space through protests, an annual “Space for Peace Week” and lawsuits through the years.
Said Gagnon: “The recent testimonies by aerospace industry operatives before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics were quite telling. But even more so were the opening statements by committee co-chairs, both Democrats, who hail from the heavily space-oriented states of Virginia and Texas. Both committee chairs Don Beyer (VA) and Bernice Johnson (TX) enthusiastically endorsed the proposal to continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually toward preparation of nuclear reactor flight tests in space.”
“The logic behind this dangerous ‘field test’ is to prepare to send nuclear-powered rockets to Mars,” said Gagnon. “Ostensibly these plans are to protect the ‘safety of our astronauts’ by reducing their exposure to in-space radiation with ‘shorter trips’ to the red planet because nuclear rockets would cut in half the travel time. This is very telling as concern over the safety of a couple of astronauts ‘trumps’ the safety of the Department of Energy workers who will be fabricating these space nuclear devices.”
“We know that over the years the U.S. Department of Energy has a terrible track record of worker and community contamination during these space nukes fabrication processes. One example is the 244 cases of worker contamination at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico while building the plutonium generators for the 1997 Cassini space probe,” said Gagnon.
“In addition, this concern over astronaut safety also ‘trumps’ the safety of all life on Earth as plans call for the testing of these nuclear rocket engines just over our heads in space,” he said.
“During the testimony of several aerospace industry executives at the hearing they admitted that current regulations that oversee ground testing of these reactors are ‘too restrictive’ because they require the capture and processing of ‘radiologic sources’ in order to ‘reduce contamination.’ Thus, with no regulation of testing in space the powerful alliance of aerospace and nuclear industry is asking Congress to give them a free pass,” Gagnon said.