Shape of things to comeU.K. project examines the idea of a nuclear-powered passenger aircraft

Published 28 October 2008

As worries about the rising price of oil and climate change grow, so grows the interest in nuclear power — but not only for ground-based power generation; a U.K. government-funded project examines the idea of nuclear-powered passenger plane

In the 1950s the U.S. Air Force toyed with the idea of a nuclear-powered plane. Since the designers were not sure how much radiation would be emitted by the small nuclear plant on board, it was suggested that it would be better if old pilots would fly the planes. The Air Force tested a nuclear-powered jet engine on the ground and also carried out flight tests with a nuclear reactor on board a B-36 jet with a lead-lined cockpit over West Texas and Southern New Mexico (note that the reactor “ran hot” during the flights, but the engines were still powered by kerosene).

The plan never got off the ground, but is being revived now as concerns about the rising cost of oil and worries about the environment grow. The Times’s Ben Webster writes that a U.K government-funded project, called Omega project, aims to help the aviation industry change from fossil to nuclear fuel.

Ian Poll, professor of aerospace engineering at Cranfield university, and head of technology for the Omega project, said in a lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society the other day that experiments conducted during the cold war have already demonstrated that there are no insurmountable obstacles to developing a nuclear-powered aircraft. In an interview with the Times, Poll said: “We need to be looking for a solution to aviation emissions which will allow flying to continue in perpetuity with zero impact on the environment. We need a design which is not kerosene-powered, and I think nuclear-powered airplanes are the answer beyond 2050. 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.”

Poll told Webster that the big challenge would be to demonstrate that passengers and crew could be safely shielded from the reactors. “It’s done on nuclear submarines and could be achieved on aircraft by locating the reactors with the engines out on the wings,” he said. “The risk of reactors cracking open in a crash could be reduced by jettisoning them before impact and bringing them down with parachutes.” He said that the worst-case scenario would be if the armor plating around the reactor was pierced there would be a risk of radioactive contamination over a few square miles. “If we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of air travel without hindrance from environmental concerns, we need to explore nuclear power. If aviation remains wedded to fossil fuels, it will run into serious trouble,” he said. “Unfortunately, nuclear power has been demonized but it has the potential to be very beneficial to mankind.”