US Plans To Go Nuclear With Passenger Aircraft

October 29, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

A nuclear-powered aircraft may sound like a concept from a science fiction movie, but it seems that it may well become a reality in only a few years time. The United States has made a big call for research into using nuclear energy to power passenger airplanes. Their hopes are to develop the technology with a view to having nuclear-powered aircraft transporting passengers around the globe by the end of this century.

The big drive behind the project is the need to help the aviation industry shift from its reliance on fossil fuels to other fuel sources. Nuclear energy seems to be the answer. Not only will using this power source mean that aircraft will not produce carbon emissions and therefore no longer be the global warming threat it is currently, but it will also make it possible for planes to stay in the sky much longer and so save on the fuel that would normally be used to land and take off when the plane make refueling stop during a long, cross-continent flight. It all seems like a very good, win-win idea. No wonder it is being explored further. Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Cranfield University, Ian Poll, is also filling the role of ‘head of technology’ for the new Omega Project. He says that the government-funded project calls for a massive research program for ways to make the conversion from fossil fuel to nuclear energy.

Is it possible or merely the realms of wishful thinking? The history books tell us that it is very possible. Poll mentioned the fact that during the Cold War, the US experimented with a nuclear reactor fitted to a B-36 bomber. The airplane flew over West Texas and Southern New Mexico and the cockpit was lined with lead to protect those in it from nuclear fall out. The results: the flight was largely a success. While the reactor ‘ran hot’ during the flights, this was attributed to the fact that the engines were powered by kerosene. The entire purpose of the experiment was to see if the crew could be shielded from the reactor – which they were. It wouldn’t take much to finish developing the technology.

However concerns have been expressed by the public that, while the crew and passengers may be protected from nuclear fallout, the aircraft may not necessarily be sealed tight. Fallout could leak out if the aircraft is not maintained properly, potentially raining down to the earth below with devastating consequences. Only time will tell how these and other issues will be dealt with. For now, however, it’s full-steam-ahead in developing nuclear technology suited to aircraft.

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