Banning Orbiting Nukes

BOMB-GRADE URANIUM on campus, radioactive waste in the ocean—these, alas, are not the only arenas where nuclear materials have been placed in hazardous fashion. The U.S. and the former U.S.S.R. launched, or attempted to launch, dozens of nuclear power sources into orbit. Steve Aftergood researched the troubled history and revealed that approximately 15% of both American and Soviet nuclear space devices suffered accidents, launch aborts, or other failures. Steve, now at the Federation of American Scientists, was CBG Executive Director for a decade spanning the 1980s and played critical roles in the successful fights over the UCLA reactor and this work on space nukes.

We disclosed that two such launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base failed. One, carrying a plutonium- 238 power source, failed to reach orbit and burned up in the atmosphere; the plutonium fell out around the world. A second failed to get even that high and fell back in the Southern California area. The failure was not publicly disclosed, but the government monitored milk around LA trying to locate the plutonium source by determining if it was contaminating milk and if so, where the cows were located. In the end, the radioactive source was determined to have come back to earth near the Channel Islands.

When President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars, arms control experts opposed it. They did so partially because it could never work and partly because it would trigger an expanded arms race where one had to build more and more weapons to be confident that enough would get through the defenses. To help sell it, Reagan promised it would be non-nuclear, like a safe rainbow above us to protect us from incoming nuclear missiles.

CBG disclosed through the news media, however, that SDI depended upon orbiting battles stations powered by nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. We brought to public attention through the media the past failures for much smaller nuclear power sources in space and exposed details about the new SDI space nuclear programs.

In 1988, during the Gorbachev glasnost period, Dan Hirsch went to Moscow, as part of a delegation sponsored by the Federation of American Scientists and the Soviet Academy of Sciences, to help draft a proposed treaty banning nuclear sources in earth orbit. While there, a Soviet nuclear-powered satellite space reactor, Cosmos 1900, was at risk of re-entering the atmosphere. The U.S. government could get no information about Cosmos 1900 from direct channels with the Soviet government. In the midst of this crisis, while in Moscow, Hirsch was called into the Soviet Foreign Ministry. In an extraordinary meeting, they provided him with details of the failure. He asked if he could share that information with the U.S. government when he returned to Washington, and was told yes. It was, in fact, clear that the Soviets intended for Hirsch to be the means by which the details of the space nuclear failure were communicated to the U.S. government.

Back in Washington, he briefed the State Department on the details of the failure, the backup systems that were also failing, and the Soviet plans for last ditch efforts to get the nuclear reactor boosted further into orbit so that it wouldn’t fall back to earth spreading its radioactivity. Then Hirsch and Aftergood testified at a dramatic Senate hearing that had been called in part to boost plans for space nuclear power for Star Wars. The Cosmos 1900 failure occurring at precisely the same time cast a pall on those plans. The head of the SDI and numerous other high government officials testified, and then we did.

We explained the dangers of nuclear sources in orbit, exemplified by the Cosmos 1900 failure, but also detailed the history of past failures, U.S. and Soviet. Hirsch had been authorized by Roald Sagdeev, head of the Soviet Space Research Institute and our host while in Moscow, to present to the Committee the draft treaty to ban orbiting nuclear devices the American and Soviet scientists had written during our meetings. The government witnesses on the panel before us had evaded the Chair’s questions about what would happen if the Soviet space reactor fell on Washington; we then answered the question, causing significant discomfort for the advocates of SDI space nukes. After the hearing, we asked Committee staff how they thought the hearing went and were told they thought the government witnesses had done more poorly than they had hoped and we had done better than they had wished.

At the last moment, the Soviets regained communications with the satellite and were able to get it pushed into a higher orbit. The work we did opposing “Chernobyls in space” resulted in the cancellation of the SDI space nuke programs. No nuclear source, American or Russian, has been put into orbit since then.