As I am writing this, there is just over two weeks left until the launch of Cassini, NASA’s robotic spacecraft to Saturn. A spacecraft that carries over 30 kilos of radioactive plutonium, in the form of three radiothermal generators and several hundred small heater elements. Opponents to the project point out the possibility of property damage in the trillions, and loss of human life in the millions should a worst-case scenario accident occur.

I will not repeat NASA’s arguments about the safety record of Titan-IVs, the extremely low likelihood of a reentry during the Earth gravity assist phase of the mission, and the improbability that, should a catastrophic event occur, plutonium is actually released in a breathable form despite being stored as a ceramic oxide, encased in a highly resistant container. Suffice to say that I view this latest salvo in the continuing war against nuclear energy as yet another attempt to cheaply exert political influence by inducing mass hysteria.

Sure, nuclear energy is dangerous. There is no excuse for sloppy handling, careless management of nuclear plants, unnecessary tests of explosive devices, or the most hideous of all, experimentation on unwitting human subjects. But can there be no other solutions than to ban the use of nuclear energy completely (or regulate it to such a degree that it amounts to a ban by making its use prohibitively expensive?)

Let’s put that question aside for a moment. I’d like to mention another technology, one that has been around for some time. It featured prominently in the news this week, because its careless and irresponsible use brought about two fatal accidents with several hundred dead, massive pollution over thousands of square miles of woodlands, and possibly caused long term health damage, including the heightened risk of cancer, for several million people. Figured out yet what I am talking about? Here’s another hint: this technology was invented some 50,000 years ago.

I am talking about fire of course, specifically the fires that burn uncontrollably in Southeast Asia as I am writing this. Those fires are causing more damage right now than Cassini ever could, even if the worst nightmares of its near-hysterical opponents come true. What is 70-odd pounds of plutonium when compared to millions of tons of pollutants in the atmosphere and thousands of square miles of our irreplaceable biosphere destroyed?

If I had a choice about it, I would much rather live near Cape Canaveral (or the vicinity of any nuclear power station, for that matter) than anywhere in Indonesia today. Just as I would much prefer a world where nuclear energy is used as widely as possible. Would that mean more accidents and heightened risk? Of course. But as the fires of Indonesia demonstrate, that risk is nothing compared to the everyday damage done by the use of conventional, “safe” forms of energy: the millions who suffer and die because of chemical pollution, the thousands who fall ill after working in mines and other unsafe places, the millions of tons of pollutants introduced into the atmosphere each year, the massive damage done to the environment.

There is no turning back the clock. If we expect 6 billion people to live in reasonable comfort, safety, and with dignity, energy must be produced. But do we need to succumb to the fears of the simple-minded traveler who, in his irrational fear of airplane accidents, prefers a road trip instead even if the risk of death per mile traveled is many times higher?

Followup notes: I wrote this piece in September 1997. Cassini was launched successfully later that year, and is well on its way to its first gravity-assist encounter with Venus. It'll soon be in the vicinity of Earth again for another gravity boost; no doubt, we will hear of the panic-mongers again when the time comes.

Since I wrote this little essay, something else occurred to me. Prior to the atmospheric test ban signed in the early sixties, the United States exploded hundreds of nuclear devices on various test sites, many on American soil. (Ever heard of those bomb-watching parties in Las Vegas in the 1950s?) Most of these explosions used plutonium devices, and because a nuclear explosion is never 100% efficient, all atmospheric plutonium explosions must have released several kilograms of plutonium into the atmosphere. Over the years, probably hundreds of kilograms were released. The effects of this are measurable (just recently, there was a news item about the lingering effects of radioactive fallout in many Western states and parts of Canada), but they certainly didn't result in a calamity of the scope and magnitude foretold by Cassini's opponents. Cassini, even in a worst-case scenario, would have released only a tiny fraction of the plutonium that was released in these nuclear explosions routinely, for nearly two decades. Given the discovery announced a few days ago of signs of water on Saturn's moon Titan (the target of the Huygens probe that's on board Cassini) I think this exploration, which may shed light on the very origins of life on our planet, is well worth the risk.