Cold War photo: Why nuclear powered airliners never took off
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.