Russian Roulette

November 21, 1996

The space industry is playing a high-stakes game of chance that imperils every human being on earth. Just how perilous hit home this week when an unmanned Russian space probe carrying 200 grams of plutonium - the most toxic substance known - malfunctioned and came crashing back to earth.

Russian space officials issued the usual assurances: There was no danger to the public; no radiation was released. It was puzzling how that could be said with certainty when at the same time there was utter confusion about where the probe actually landed and what caused the crash. In any event, let's hope they are right.

The United States plans to send a Cassini probe to Saturn next October that will contain a whopping 72.3 pounds of plutonium fuel - by far the most ever sent into space. The potential for a disaster of a magnitude previously unknown is all too clear. We are betting on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's infallibility, but, given its record, the odds of losing are distressing. Moreover, certain scientists say the risk is unnecessary because solar cells could be used as the source of energy in lieu of plutonium.

Nuclear technology is dangerous enough on earth. Space technology still is in its infancy. Don't combine the two.

This week's Russian mishap should be regarded as a wake-up call. Anti-nuclear activists on Long Island successfully fought the Long Island Lighting Company's Shoreham power plant and have forced the public to reconsider the effects of what goes on at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

It's time to turn our sights skyward.