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Why don’t airplanes run on nuclear power?

Why There Are No Nuclear Airplanes Strategists considered sacrificing older pilots to patrol the skies in flying reactors. An Object Lesson. The Atlantic, 20 Jan 19 CHRISTIAN RUHL

“……….. Why don’t airplanes run on nuclear power?

The reasons are many. Making a nuclear reactor flightworthy is difficult. Shielding it from spewing dangerous radiation into the bodies of its crew might be impossible. During the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear apocalypse led to surprisingly pragmatic plans, engineers proposed to solve the problem by hiring elderly Air Force crews to pilot the hypothetical nuclear planes, because they would die before radiation exposure gave them fatal cancers.

The Italian American physicist Enrico Fermi had introduced the idea of nuclear flight as early as 1942, while serving on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. As World War II drew to a close, the United States began work to realize Fermi’s dream of nuclear-powered flight. From 1946 until 1961, vast teams of engineers, strategists, and administrators toiled in a whirl of blueprints, white papers, and green bills in an attempt to get the idea off the ground.

The advantages of nuclear-powered airplanes mirrored those of nuclear submarines. Nuclear submarines did not need to surface for fuel, and nuclear airplanes would not need to land. A 1945 proposal at the Department of War (now the Department of Defense) promised, “With nuclear propulsion, supersonic flight around the world becomes an immediate possibility.” A secret Atomic Energy Commission memorandum now held in the Eisenhower Presidential Library explained the promise of nuclear flight in a more measured tone. Nuclear energy “should make possible ranges of one or more times around the world with a single loading of the reactor.” The idea of a nuclear-powered bomber became a strategic dream for the military; it could stay aloft for days to cover any number of targets throughout the world, before returning to the United States without refueling………

 nuclear power came with its own problems. The reactor would have to be small enough to fit onto an aircraft, which meant it would release far more heat than a standard one. The heat could risk melting the reactor—and the plane along with it, sending a radioactive hunk of liquid metal careening toward Earth.

The problem of shielding pilots from the reactor’s radiation proved even more difficult. What good would a plane be that killed its own pilots?

To protect the crew from radioactivity, the reactor needed thick and heavy layers of shielding. But to take off, the plane needed to be as light as possible. Adequate shielding seemed incompatible with flight.

Still, engineers theorized that the weight saved from needing no fuel might be enough to offset the reactor and its shielding. The United States spent 16 years tinkering with the idea, to no avail. The Soviet Union pursued nuclear aircraft propulsion too, running up against the same problems.

……The nuclear airplane became redundant from a military point of view, as ICBMs avoided the problems of manned nuclear flight.

…….In a last-ditch effort to keep the nuclear airplane on the table, military strategists considered a radical solution: They could use pilots closer to death. The Air Force would use crews old enough to die of natural causes before the harmful effects of radiation could show up and thus, the logic went, sidestep the shielding problem. As the nuclear-policy expert Leonard Weiss explained in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the proposal would have made radiation shielding unnecessary and decreased the weight of the plane significantly. It might have let the nuclear airplane take flight.

………Even that shocking proposal failed to save the nuclear airplane. The Eisenhower administration concluded that the program was unnecessary, dangerous, and too expensive. On March 28, 1961, the newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy canceled the program. Proposals for nuclear-powered airplanes have popped up since then, but the fear of radiation and the lack of funding have kept all such ideas down……….https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/01/elderly-pilots-who-could-have-flown-nuclear-airplanes/580780/

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January 21, 2019 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, technology

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