Is A Giant Nuclear-Powered Plane That Doesn’t Have To Land Possible?

Automologist MAC separates fantasy from fact. 

Recently, one of my colleagues wrote a piece about the development of a plane—well, hotel, really—that could stay airborne almost indefinitely as it was nuclear-powered. Yes, I know they did it on the Avengers, but that was comic book fantasy. It turns out that not so long ago, there was a plan to launch a nuclear-powered plane. In fact, they actually developed a few of them.



If you consider what a jet engine is in essence, you realise that it is a pretty simple concept. All it is really is a heat engine. You take in cold air at the front and heat it up to silly temperatures and then eject it out of the back. The conventional jet engine heats up air by burning jet fuel. So, the heat can come from any source really, and a nuclear reactor gets real hot—just ask the good folks over in Chernobyl.

Behold, a thing of beauty, ladies and gentlemen. I present to you, the HTRE-3 nuclear-fuelled ‘Jet’ Engine…..

…….. but no radiation shield.

The big problem is to make the reactor light enough to stick in a plane. This is not a real problem for the reactor, most of them are quite light. The problem comes from the tonnes of lead you need to shield the reactor and prevent everyone around it dying, shortly after take-off, from radiation poisoning. But build them they did and flew them with experimental engines (not the real deal, though) and found that they produced a LOT of radiation.

This one actually flew. It was called the Convair NB-36H Peacemaker.

Northrop N-34 nuclear-powered project with detachable command module.

And then I think that the boys over at the planning department sobered up and realised that radioactive planes are just a dumb idea and quietly forgot about it and the millions of dollars that had been spent on research.

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