Friday, April 12, 2002

The Defense Science Board is exploring the idea of using interceptor missiles armed with nuclear weapons. This might be named the "Ground Hog Day defense," after the movie. We seem doomed to keep repeating failed ideas. We had such a missile defense once, briefly, until we realized that even a country like North Korea, which doesn't have the bomb, could create nuclear havoc by just sending their unarmed, inaccurate, marginally intercontinental missiles our way. In any case, the very fact that nuclear-armed interceptors are now being considered seems to be an admission that, contrary to Pentagon hype, the current crop of hit-to-kill interceptors show little promise of hitting realistic targets.

You may recall the noisy protests of anti-nuke fear mongers over the use of RTGs (radioisotope thermoelectric generators) in the Cassini mission to Saturn (WN 5 Sep 97). According to Time.Com columnist Leon Jaroff, they are now upset by an item in the FY03 NASA budget for development of nuclear powered spacecraft. If we are to explore beyond the orbit of Mars, some form of nuclear energy will be a necessity. The fear mongers, however, are misinformed. In the first place NASA isn't looking for a new generation of RTGs, which generate fairly feeble amounts of power, they want to take the step to nuclear reactors, which can supply the much greater power needs of future missions. What the nuclear activists fail to recognize is that a nuclear reactor, launched cold, is no more of a hazard to Earth dwellers than any space hardware. Only after the buildup of reaction products does radiation become a problem. By then the spacecraft should be beyond the point of no return.

On Wednesday, the American Society for Cell Biology released a letter signed by 40 Nobel laureates warning that a cloning ban "would have a chilling effect on all scientific research in the United States." Among the signers of the letter were a number of physicists, including former presidents of the American Physical Society, Jerry Friedman and Burt Richter. The letter strongly opposes attempts to create a cloned human being, calling for strong criminal sanctions to prevent it. However, legislation introduced by Senator Brownback (R-KS) would block even nuclear transplantation technology, which cannot be used to clone human beings but can clone stem cells for treatment of some of the most debilitating diseases known to man. President Bush somehow sees this as an attack on human dignity, and promised he would sign legislation outlawing importation of therapies developed in other countries using cloning technology. That, of course, has the effect of limiting treatment for some dreaded diseases to those who can afford to travel to other countries for treatment.

Bob Park can be reached via email at
Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they should be.