Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion - Appendix




When I started writing this paper I didn't expect it to be as complicated as it turned out to be, source wise that is. Since a good deal of the ANP program was classified at the time there were a number of contradictory articles which appear to be either an attempt by the author to fill in the blanks, or perhaps deliberate disinformation by the government.

The idea of powering aircraft with atomic power is still a topic which causes very strong opinions, one way or the other. During the time I have been researching and writing this paper I have discussed this topic with a good number of my friends. And a common reaction is simply, "Why?" Why would anyone want to fly an atomic aircraft. After explaining the goals of the ANP program many people still don't see what the point was, most consider atomic aircraft to be simply too big a risk to be worthwhile.

My initial conversations gave me the idea to go to the nets and solicit opinions there. I posted to wpi.students, rec.aviation, sci.military, and sci.aeronautics asking for opinions on nuclear powered aircraft. This should not be considered to by a good sampling of the general public as, in general, those people on the nets have a high level of education and are, for the most part, involved in some technical field. Plus the newsgroups I posted to have a high concentration of people interested in aviation simply because of what their subjects.

I received a fair number of replies and in general the reaction was again, why use atomic power. However, a few people did acknowledge that it was feasible, and perhaps desirable for the military. Here are a few selected quotes, no attribution as I stated I would not use names. "I think that the words 'nuclear' and 'aircraft' coming together in the same breath would freak out a lot of people, mostly those who don't know a lot about the idea. --- However, I personally think the idea would be feasible, providing that it is well-maintained and well-regulated." "This doesn't sound feasible! Nuclear engines on military aircraft? Wouldn't the nuclear product yield an identifiable signature?" "The major problem, I think, would be that crashes would make things rather messy." "How do you plan to eliminate the danger of radioactive contamination in the event of a crash or other catastrophic failure (and there *will* be catastrophic failures)?" "Planes crash. How can you make it safe? If you *could* make it safe, and convince me it was safe, I guess I'd have no objections." "Nuclear propulsion for aircraft was one of the stupidest ideas they ever came up with. --- The consequences of accidents, --- overwhelmingly outweigh any benefits." "Why would you want nuke engines, anyway?" "This is absolutely crazy! --- If I was a terrorist I don't see how I could resist the temptation to blow it over a city. --- Nah, not a good idea." "Much as I like the idea of nuclear use, I don't know how you could do nuclear propulsion in the vicinity of an inhabited/able planet." "The multiple problems of crashing, radioactive emissions and production hazards seem to be great." "As a semi-informed member of the public (Physics Ph.D., and a general interest/support of nuclear power), I really doubt that such a thing can be made to work safely at any reasonable cost." "I personally think that's just fine, but with the general populace, the idea will never fly." "Negative, think of the new dimension it would add to airplane crashes." "--- the idea of using nuclear reactors to power aircraft is insane." "Too much risk of radiation release against only a marginal benefit." 'As far as opinion goes, I'd ride in one, but I was told that the results of the experiment showed that a properly shielded nuclear reactor is much too heavy to use for aircraft."

As you can see from the above quotes, opinions very widely. There are those who feel atomic aircraft are fine, and those who feel the idea is insane. A few new points were brought up by the replies too. When the ANP project took place there wasn't any real problem with terrorists, but now they are a very real risk. Bringing a nuclear aircraft down on a populated area could cause a great deal of trouble. The one point that was repeated the most was the simple fact that planes crash. The military could get around this by operating in their own airspace away from cities, but a nuclear civilian airliner would need to get close to cities to be effective. A large number of crashes occur during take-off and landing, this is when a nuclear airliner would be the most dangerous to the public.

Personally I don't have any problem with the use if atomic power for aircraft, and I would fly in one if I believed it was safe. I feel that as a passenger my odds of dying on an airliner are the same whether it is chemically powered or powered by a reactor. But why? Conventional jets have come a long way since the ANP program ran. Modern airliners have the range for nearly any flight one would want to make, and as a matter of business airlines don't fly a great deal of non-stop flights long distance. The nuclear airliner wouldn't fit the present system. And for the military, the nuclear bomber is a purely strategic weapon. With the thawing of the cold war there is no use for such an expensive and complicated system. The B-2 would have a better chance if ever used, and it is being cut back drastically.

In this day of curtailed military spending I don't think the ANP would have ever come about. It took the pressure of the early cold war years to give it life. The nation was almost constantly on a ready for war footing, and as time went on we relaxed and began to seriously look at our projects. The ANP seemed to be unneeded. If the program had had better guidance perhaps it would have made progress quicker and produced a flight article before the cold war cooled off. If it had we may have been introduced to a world of nuclear aircraft. But that isn't the way it happened, at least not in this universe.

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