Michio Kaku: Speech at Cape Canaveral

Air Force Station Main Gates July 26, 1997

BIO: Dr. Michio Kaku is one of the world's leading authorities on Einstein's Unified Field Theory, co-founder of string field theory and a pioneer in superstring theory, the leading candidate for this theory. He has spoken at numerous international physics conferences on relativity and the quantum theory, including Moscow, Paris, London, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Berlin. He is the author of 9 books and over 70 scientific articles in physics journals.

His technical books are required reading for scores of Ph.D. graduate students in major physics laboratories around the world. He graduated from Harvard (1968) summa cum laude (with highest honors), Phi Beta Kappa, and number one in his physics class. He received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the Radiation Laboratory at the Univ. of Calif. at Berkeley in 1972. He taught at Princeton in 1973 as a research associate, and is currently the Henry Semat Prof. of Theoretical Physics at the Graduate Center of the City Univ. of New York, where he has been for the past 24 years. He has been a visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where Einstein worked, and New York Univ.

He is listed in Who's Who and American Men and Women of Science. He is a Fellow of the American Physics Society, an honor held by about 10% of the nations top physicists.


I was in the United States Military, inside the infantry at the height of the Vietnam war. I was then recruited to be part of the Star Warriors Program. When I met protesters like you standing outside these lonely gates, I began to realize that perhaps everything I had believed in up to that time about war and peace was in fact wrong. We touch people's hearts and minds, and that is what this [protest] is all about. I've been a professor of physics for the past twenty-five years. As a physicist I learned you should always look at both sides of the story. I've gone through thousands of pages of computer output from NASA, and at first it seems they have a convincing case. They have computer programs as thick as the Manhattan telephone book. They have teams of engineers, squadrons of NASA bureaucrats, multimillion dollar budgets and they ask, "So, what do you have? You critics are nothing but scandal mongers, simpleminded know-nothings." They may have computer programs as thick as telephone books, but we have one thing on our side, that is the laws of physics and the truth.

The laws of physics tell us, number one, that a chain is no stronger than its weakest link. And the weakest link in the Cassini is human error and design flaws. How do you quantify human stupidity? How can you write a telephone book to put a number on human error? The real know nothings and simpletons are the NASA bureaucrats who don't understand this. When the Hubble telescope was first launched, this billion dollar pinnacle of American science was sent into orbit near sighted. Why was that? Among several reasons, during its assembly a man used a ruler backwards to measure the mirror, jeopardizing a billion dollar space mission. How do you put a number on that?

So what's inside those telephone-book-size computer programs? I've gone through all of them and I was shocked to find they took their programs directly from the nuclear power plant industry. Event-tree Analyses, Monte Carlo, Single-Event Failure failed to predict Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, events precipitated by human error and design flaws.

A few years ago I was in Los Angeles debating Mr. Jerry Bailey, Senior Engineer at the Bechtel Corporation. They had been asked to remedy the fact that the two billion dollar nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon was installed backwards, the program read backwards by the engineers at installation. All the safety systems were installed backwards by the Nuclear Power plant industry. That's not all that's backwards. The heads of the utilities are screwed on backwards, putting expediency before the health and safety of the people of this country. Mr. Bailey got very angry when I mentioned this to him during the debate. When I added that Diablo was the second California Power plant installed backwards, where they have to run the computer programs backwards to compensate, his face got red and he pounded the table with his fist and said, "Dammit! Sure we put in those two powerplants backwards, BUT THOSE ARE THE BEST DAMN REACTORS THAT WE HAVE EVER BUILT!"

The laws of physics tell us, number two, you should test with full scale experiment. If the RTGs and plutonium are safe, put it in an explosion to prove they're safe. Has NASA done the acid test: raise the RTGs to 3,000 degrees centigrade, fire bullets at it at 1,000 ft/sec while it's under 2,500 psi pressure? No. This violates one of the most precious principles in all of science, "Test your theories before you send them into orbit." So where did they get their numbers from? They made them up. Their numbers claim that .01%, 28.7 curies of plutonium will escape if there's an accident on launch. You too can make up numbers, publish a telephone-book-size computer program, and use that program as a door stop.

The laws of physics tell us, number three, to look at the track record, the actual experience. The second weakest link in the chain after human error, is the Titan IV booster rocket. Its failure rate is one out of twenty. Would you put a gun at your head with twenty chambers in it and one bullet, keep firing it while telling your friends, "Nothing is going to happen. It's safe. Believe me. Honest." That's what the NASA bureaucrats are telling you. One in twenty, not one in a million, are the true odds of an accident for this mission. One in seventy are the odds for the average booster rocket. The actual failure rate of past plutonium missions is three out of twenty-three. Rely on the actual experience.

The laws of physics tell us, number four, that winds can blow this material many miles. In their accident scenario, NASA used to say that 2,300 people could be killed from cancer over a fifty year period from a maximum accident. Now they say 120. From which hat did they pull that number? I went through their calculations, through hundreds of pages. The reason they now say only 120 people will be killed when Cassini comes flaming back down, releasing one third of its plutonium in the upper atmosphere --- is because they assume all its plutonium will be concentrated in one square mile. NASA has discovered a fantastic, remarkable new law of physics that will kick in during an accident. It's called: "The winds do not blow within one mile of a shattered space probe." No place in their calculations do they factor in wind effects.

I'm trying to tell you something very simple. NASA is engaged in scientific dishonesty. It is dishonest to make up numbers without full-scale tests, to use computer programs without considering human error or design flaws, to not consider the actual track record. They are also not considering billions of dollars in law suits.

So what could happen in October when we have that Cassini launch? Maybe nothing. Maybe, out of twenty chambers pointed at your head, the gun will say, "Click". It may be, and the next one may be a perfect launch. But sooner or later the laws of physics catch up with you. Let's now go through what will happen in case of a booster rocket failure at launch. Temperatures will climb to 2,500 centigrade, above the melting point of the plutonium's iridium casing. Local temperatures will be 3,300 degrees, like an acetylene torch. Shrapnel will begin piercing the RTGs. These RTGs fail at room temperature with aluminum and titanium bullets fired at 1000 ft/sec. At 2,500 degrees the RTGs will be ripped to shreds by the shrapnel, its iridium casing melted. At room temperatures the RTGs have withstood overpressures a little over 2,000 psi. Put all these things together at one time like it will be during an accident: the high temperature, the high pressure, the flying shrapnel. I estimate that 30 to 40% will come out, not 0.01%.

Then we will look in the sky. This plutonium will be dispersed as a fine, invisible mist. At that point the radios will announce that there's been a mishap, but there's nothing to worry about because NASA has everything under control. Then the radio will announce the wind conditions. And the people of Florida will put two and two together, get into their cars and try to hit the road. Evacuation will be impossible, a massive traffic jam with everyone on the road tracking wind conditions, trying to find their husband/wife or child. Within two hours the dust will begin to settle over your homes. Plutonium dioxide is a greyish, invisible dust, much of it submicron in size. It will get in your hair, in your lungs and stay lodged there: Micron and submicron size particles can not be expelled from the lungs by ciliary action. Even after you die, your grave will be slightly radioactive. Some of it will get into your bloodstream where it will be carried to your bone marrow, your kidneys, your liver.

Then the Governor of Florida will come on the radio and announce that the National Guard has been mobilized. They will come out and try to loosen up some of the traffic bottlenecks. But there will be mutinies among some of the National Guardsmen. They will say, "Why should I risk my children, my wife, my child at the day-care center?" They will mutiny. How do I know all this? Its happened before. This is what happened at Chernobyl. Fire trucks came down the streets of Kiev to hose down all the radioactive isotopes that had landed on people's homes and people's clothing. Crops had to be impounded.

At that point the Florida Growers associations will get on the radio and television and say, "Nothing to worry about. The food from Florida, the orange juice, is perfectly safe. So it's slightly radioactive...what's a little radiation?" Then the lawsuits. What is Walt Disney going to say when people don't want to take their children into a place reputed to be radioactive? Do you realize at Three Mile Island they said only 13 curies came out of that reactor, 13 curies created billions of dollars in lawsuits. Cassini contains 400,000 curies of plutonium.

Let me pose a riddle. What do oil company executives, vampires and NASA bureaucrats all have in common? They fear solar energy. They fear the power of the sun. There is only one paragraph in NASA's Environmental Impact Statement that states you can't equip the Cassini with solar panels because it is 130 pounds over weight. The pay load is 13,000 lbs. One percent overweight and they can't do it. Lose the weight! NASA admits they can downsize the mission. On Mars today, the Mars Rover is a by-product of a new strategy: smaller, better, faster, cheaper. The old probes were like the Mars Observer which blew up in '93 on its way to Mars, a leftover from the cold war. The new mission philosophy is downsize your space probes: make them half the size and send them twice as often. THAT is the future of Cassini. We should downsize all these leftovers from the cold war, make them half the size, send them twice as often and energize them with solar power. On the Cassini we're only talking about eight light bulbs worth of energy needs. The peaceful solution to this problem is for NASA to get with its own program: cheaper, smaller, faster...and go solar.

Today I'm calling on President Clinton to personally come in on this case and postpone the launching of the Cassini Probe. I'm calling on the White House because enough scientific uncertainty exists. I want to see us to explore outer space. But I want to do it safely, without the loss of human life, and democratically: where is the free-wheeling debate on this question? Only one force can stop this mission: the will of the American people. They have not been asked. Do they want to endanger their loved ones, their industry with this launch? One force is more powerful than plutonium, the spirit of the American people united.

Reactions to Cassini