Nuclear-Powered Passenger Planes?

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Nuclear-powered aircraft will be carrying millions of passengers around the world before the end of this century, according to Ian Poll, head of technology for a U.K. government-funded project to reduce the environmental impact of air travel. Poll, a professor of aerospace engineering at Cranfield university (Bedfordshire, U.K.), offers that experiments performed by both the then Soviet Union and the United States during the 1950s demonstrated that the development of nuclear-powered aircraft is possible. The U.S. has long ago flown a B-36 carrying a nuclear reactor -- and a lead-lined cockpit -- to prove the crew could be protected. It has also tested nuclear-powered jet engines on the ground. In an interview with The Times UK, Poll said the idea "was proved 50 years ago, but I accept it would take about 30 years to persuade the public of the need to fly on them."

The big challenge is demonstrated safety. Poll theorizes that reactors should be engineered into the wings along with the engines and that the risk of crash-damaged reactors could be lessened "by jettisoning them before impact and bringing them down with parachutes" ... which may or may not bring comfort to doomed passengers watching from inside the aircraft's powerless cabin, but likely to any person living within a two- or three-mile radius. Alternately, nuclear-powered unmanned aerial vehicles could be used for reconnaissance or in combat without the need for heavy reactor shielding, according to proponents.