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Cold War photo: Why nuclear powered airliners never took off

The US Department of Energy has dug up the historic photo that sums up why nuclear powered jet airliners never took off during the Cold War era.

The caption reads:

As part of the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program, the U.S. conducted extensive research showing that nuclear fission could power an aircraft. The research involved a series of Heat Transfer Reactor Experiments (HTREs), which tested if different types of jet engines could be run by nuclear power. In 1955, however, the project was cancelled, and a safe, operational prototype aircraft was never developed. In this 1988 photo, the two HTRE reactors are shown in transport to Idaho National Laboratory’s EBR-1 visitor center, where they remain today. | Photo courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory.

From memory,  in the immediate aftermath of the Sputnik 1 shock, when the USSR took the West by surprise by launching the world’s first artificial satellite on 4 October 1957, there were illustrated newspaper stories of a swept wing allegedly nuclear powered Russian aircraft that caused widespread anxiety.

The photos turned out to be a hoax, but it isn’t a clear memory as to which side of the Iron Curtain that the perpetrators were on, as if they were in the West it was a clumsy attempt to whip up Red Menace technology gap fears, which hardly needed any help at that time, or the East going na nah na na nah with a concocted piece of propaganda.

By coincidence or not the photo of this week, at Energy.gov,  accompanies an announcement about a program to develop and deploy large numbers of small modular nuclear reactors as part of the American drive to ‘do anything’ to reduce fossil carbon emissions and maintain its new status as being almost completely energy independent, albeit at some significant community costs if its coal seam and shale deposit hydrocarbon sectors are studied.

More than 50 years after the Cold War nuclear power jet concepts were considered and rejected not even the SMR program is coming anywhere remotely near what would be required for a structurally feasible and safe or desirable direct application of fission reactions to an aeroengine role.

However the pathway that is becoming more apparent by the day is the one along which vastly improved battery technology will meet SMRs, wind turbines and solar as the means for storing renewable energy in packs that will, in theory, prove capable of powering shorter range airliner flights of one to two hours duration, or at the very least, take over the needs for taxying aircraft into position at airfields, as well as augmenting in flight propulsion by liquid fuel burning engines.

The highest profile concept to argue this, the Boeing SUGAR Volt study, was most recently featured in this post.

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  • 1
    Andrew Larmour
    Posted November 25, 2012 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Don’t forget the nuclear test plane – the NB-36 Peacemaker. While it didn’t have nuclear powered engines, it did carry a small (for the time) nuclear reactor as a test, which did operate – the next phase of the test programme was to convert some of the engines to make used of all that power (not sure how they planned to do that, but I would guess that would mean electric motors driving high bypass fans or driving the pusher propellers that provide most of the trust for the B-36). The real problem with the program was the need to have the plane followed by a transport aircraft filled with Marines to contain and potential ‘leakage’ of radioactive material (through theft, crashes, hijacking etc). Not very practical for an airliner.

  • 2
    Uwe
    Posted November 26, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    The true whopper of nuclear propulsion would have been
    Pluto : a nuclear propulsion cruise missile:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Pluto

  • 3
    Toetsey R
    Posted November 27, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    There are some great Project Pluto documentaries out there.

    Project Orion was on an even grander scale:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_%28nuclear_propulsion%29

  • 4
    Luke Weston
    Posted January 3, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    There was nothing technologically impractical about the use of fission reactors to power an aircraft. The intended use for such aircraft was for large bombers to remain ready at all times, with long range and long endurance without any need to refuel – much like nuclear submarines – and ready to bomb the Commies at a moment’s notice.

    However, the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles made strategic bombers largely obsolete, and removed the motivation for the nuclear aircraft program – there was really no engineering problem that scuttled the program.

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