CAPE CANAVERAL - About three dozen people assembled at the spaceport Saturday to protest this month's planned launch of a plutonium-powered space probe bound for Pluto.

The demonstrators made speeches, sang songs and carried signs with messages such as "NASA puts us all at risk!" and "Even mousetraps malfunction. Is a mini-Chernobyl in our community's future?" in opposition of the nuclear generator being used to power the New Horizons spacecraft.

The protesters say a rocket explosion could expose people, animals and the environment to dangerous doses of radioactive plutonium. Many of the people who gathered outside Cape Canaveral Air Force Station alleged the mission is not just for scientific gain, but also to test the nuclear generator for use in space weapons.

"The public is tired of being lied to," said Maria Telesca-Whipple, a married mother of two from Rockledge and an organizer with the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. "We have no problem with the peaceful exploration of space, but we don't think that's what plutonium in space is all about."

In general, the demonstrators doubt government safety studies and disaster planning. They disputed NASA and Department of Energy estimates that there is a 1-in-350 chance of a plutonium release if something goes wrong during the preparation and launch of the Atlas 5 rocket, which is set for Jan. 17.

The protesters said NASA has downplayed the worst-case scenarios in its own studies and focused on statistics that make the risk sound less dire. However, several protesters said that even if the government's risk numbers are accurate, the risk is too high to make the mission to explore Pluto worth the extra danger. As evidence there is danger, the protesters cited government safety notices calling for people to go indoors and turn off the air conditioning if the rocket explodes.

Saturday's turnout was smaller than for past protests of nuclear-powered space missions. Hundreds turned out in 1997 at the same air force station gate to demonstrate against the launch of the Cassini probe that is now beaming back scientific data and photographs of Saturn.

"We are few, but we represent many," said Peg McIntire, a 95-year old woman with the group Grandmothers for Peace, who protested Cassini and other nuclear-powered space missions.

"We do represent thousands of people, just this little group here," she said.

"A lot of folks' energies have been directed toward the ending-the-war movement," Telesca-Whipple said of the crowd size. She said people are not as aware of this mission as some of the past probes that carried the nuclear generators, but those who she has spoken with are worried enough to consider leaving the area before the launch.

There were no arrests. Spaceport security officials monitored from nearby but never had to leave their posts. A military helicopter buzzed overhead several times during the demonstration, its roar making it impossible to hear the words being spoken by two of the half-dozen speakers.

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