Lawyers saving the world

In the mid-1990s and again in October 1997, several anti-nuclear and “environmental” groups tried to prevent the “contamination of space with nuclear energy,” opposing the use of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) in space. RTGs are completely benign, very safe power sources that have been used in countless projects in space and all over our planet. These groups publicly decried the “dangers” of nuclear energy, and they insisted on keeping space free of such “dangers.” They seemed to know nothing of the true nature of the space environment, where the sun is a continuously exploding hydrogen bomb millions of times the size of the whole Earth, and our solar system is filled with high-energy particles, neutrons, cosmic rays — at times it’s like the inside of a nuclear reactor. Nothing humans could ever do would have the slightest effect on this environment. Their focus was the sun-bound European Space Agency probe ULYSSES and Saturn-bound American probe CASSINI. Their legal interference delayed both deployments, nearly doubling ULYSSES’ cost,  and substantially increasing CASSINI’s as well.

Now they’re at it again, this time trying to prevent the start-up of the CERN Large Hadron Collider just outside Geneva. In a lawsuit filed Mach 21, 2008, in the Federal District Court in Hawaii (no, I don’t know the connection between the Hawaii Federal Court and Geneva, Switzerland), Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho are claiming that starting up the Collider may create a black hole that will swallow up the Earth, and possibly our entire solar system. Wagner lives in Hawaii. He studied physics and did cosmic ray research at the University of California, Berkeley, received a law degree from the University of Northern California in Sacramento, and also worked as a radiation safety officer for the Veterans Administration. With these credentials, he really ought to know better. Sancho describes himself as an author and researcher on time theory. The only way to evaluate his expertise is his association with Wagner in this suit. According to Wagner, Sancho probably lives in Barcelona, Spain.

Wagner tried this before in 1999 and 2000, filing suite to prevent the Brookhaven National Laboratory from operating the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. The suits were dismissed in 2001. The collider has been operating without incident since 2000, smashing gold ions together to generate a “quark-gluon plasma.”

Theoreticians and researchers from around the world have stated unequivocally that the CERN Collider presents absolutely no threat. Their thoughts are summarized by a comment from Nima Arkani-Hamed, a particle theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, who said, “Nothing, indeed, will happen in the CERN collider that does not happen 100,000 times a day from cosmic rays in the atmosphere.” The bottom line is that the perceived danger is entirely inside Wagner’s mind, and possibly Sancho’s, if he’s along for more than just the ride. Given Wagner’s background, this is far more likely a publicity stunt than a serious, although misguided objection.

In a free society, even uninformed people have the right to express their opinions. The leaders of the antinuclear environmental coalition, however, failed to educate themselves even to the most rudimentary level of knowledge regarding RTGs and the space environment. What these people don’t have the right to do is foist the cost of their ignorant flailings on the rest of us. Fortunately, back in the 1990s the courts recognized this in part, finding for NASA and the government. Unfortunately, the courts did not place responsibility for the financial cost of the proceedings and the subsequent launch delays where it belonged: with Greenpeace and the coalition of Green parties and other environmental groups who brought the suits, and with the attorneys who made their mischief possible.

Now it is happening again. Wagner and Sancho are either stupid, or else they are working on their fifteen minutes of fame. In either case, the Federal Court in Hawaii should dismiss the suit, and sanction both the plaintiffs and their attorneys for bringing such a frivolous suit before the bar.

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