Commemorating 50 Years of Space Nuclear Power [Secrecy News]
In a blog posted by the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, analyst Steven Aftergood notes that the first nuclear-powered electric generator was launched into space 50 years ago June 29.
“The SNAP-3 radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) powered by the natural decay heat of plutonium-238 provided a minuscule 2.7 watts of power to the Navy’s Transit 4A navigational satellite, which was placed in orbit around the Earth at a mean altitude of 930 kilometers.”
Aftergood goes on to say that while RTGs have made possible some of humankind’s grandest adventures, including the Voyager probes now at the edge of the solar system, there is always the lurking danger of an accident releasing radioactive and highly toxic plutonium-238 into the atmosphere.
“The first launch accident (pdf) involving an RTG occurred as early as 1964 and distributed 17,000 curies of plutonium-238 around the globe, a 4% increase in the total environmental burden (measured in curies) from all plutonium isotopes (mostly fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing).”