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Obscure cold war nuclear projects: the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program
August 21, 2011 12:44 PM   Subscribe

The Cold War resulted in a rather large number of interesting military research programs. One of these with which I'm familiar is the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program, which ran from 1946 to 1961. The basic idea? Modify a bomber (such as a B-36 bomber), creating an aircraft that could theoretically remain aloft for weeks at a time without refueling, much like ballistic submarines? The challenge? Shielding. Shielding the reactor alone would make the aircraft prohibitively heavy, so the idea was to primarily shield the crew compartment instead of the reactor. However, to study the concept, and evaluate various lightweight shielding concepts, two very novel and unique nuclear reactors were built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory: the Bulk Shielding Reactor, a novel "swimming pool reactor", and the Tower Shielding Reactor, an unshielded reactor that was hung 200' in the air dangling between 310' steel towers. While the program successfully demonstrated several of the concepts (including a nuclear-powered gas turbine engine running in Idaho, and a modified B-36 that carried a nuclear reactor but wasn't propelled by it (mentioned above), the program was canceled in 1961 due to feasibility and budget concerns.
posted by kaszeta (26 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
They should dig up the plans and tender for the stealth snowmobile contract.
posted by furtive at 1:12 PM on August 21, 2011


due to feasibility and budget concerns.

Safety? Hell no.
posted by Segundus at 1:14 PM on August 21, 2011


They weren't the only people doing that dance: and the Tupolev Tu-95 LAL flew with a running reactor.
posted by cstross at 1:21 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


The SL-1 accident was also a factor. My history teacher whose father was brought in as a propulsion consultant for ANP and later PROJECT PLUTO summed it up best.
"what happens if it crashes"
posted by clavdivs at 1:24 PM on August 21, 2011


My dad used to have this collection of science magazines in paperpack form (from the 40's and 50's I think -- very similar to the old penguin books), think they were called 'Science News', which has made them fairly impossible to find (and I would love to, they were one of the best introductions to science a kid could have).

One of the projects covered in one issue was concrete ships: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concrete_ship

There's few things more wonderful than: "I know this sounds crazy, but what if...." ideas.
posted by titus-g at 1:24 PM on August 21, 2011


Previously, simply to amplify clavdivs.
posted by jet_silver at 1:26 PM on August 21, 2011


Neat, but the links 2/3 are the same...
posted by lalochezia at 1:28 PM on August 21, 2011


Previously & Obligatory as it's the best (atomic bomber related) comment on this website...
posted by protorp at 1:31 PM on August 21, 2011


Why is that stealth snowmobile black?
posted by aubilenon at 1:33 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll see your nuclear bomber, and raise you nuclear-powered family sedan!

No, a working model was never built.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:36 PM on August 21, 2011


better link
posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:37 PM on August 21, 2011


Why is that stealth snowmobile black?

The research is still in a very early phase.
posted by vibrotronica at 1:43 PM on August 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh hey, turns out it actually _was_ Penguin published them and appropriately enough the next one ending (in 26 minutes) on ebay is the special on atomic energy from 1947: http://www.ebay.co.uk/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=m570.l2736&_nkw=penguin+science+news.

I am in two minds about posting this as I have put in a bid, but then, I imagine other copies will come up and they are just rather wonderful (the steampunk that actually happened) and wonderful is best shared.
posted by titus-g at 1:47 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


They weren't the only people doing that dance: and the Tupolev Tu-95 LAL flew with a running reactor.

Jesus Tap-dancing Christ. I didn’t know anyone had ever actually flown one of the damn thing.

I’ll be over here hiding in my bunker.
posted by spitefulcrow at 2:21 PM on August 21, 2011


ObSF Reference: Peace by Gene Wolfe.
posted by Justinian at 2:25 PM on August 21, 2011


Or, uh, maybe Free Live Free. I think Peace is something very different.

If I were a billionaire I think I'd want a nuclear airplane. Giant yachts are so bourgeoisie.
posted by Justinian at 2:28 PM on August 21, 2011


titus-g: "My dad used to have this collection of science magazines in paperpack form (from the 40's and 50's I think -- very similar to the old penguin books), think they were called 'Science News', which has made them fairly impossible to find (and I would love to, they were one of the best introductions to science a kid could have).

One of the projects covered in one issue was concrete ships: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concrete_ship

There's few things more wonderful than: "I know this sounds crazy, but what if...." ideas.
"

Ice ship.
posted by Splunge at 2:43 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Steam Bird" by Hilbert Schenck
posted by 445supermag at 2:52 PM on August 21, 2011


A bigger feasibility problem for nuclear powered military aircraft than crew survival, safety of the public, or general feasibility, was the realization that such aircraft gave off unique radiation signatures of fairly high intensity, which enemies could reliably use to identify and kill them with relatively low tech, passive air defense system sensors and guided missiles. When Air Force planners had seemingly reasonable, if costly alternatives like the B-58 Hustler (a plane whose titanium reinforced, aluminum honeycomb and fiberglas hand assembled airframe was said to be more expensive, per pound, than gold) to fund, there was no competition - we built and operated B-58s, even with their 25% mortality in training missions (including two seperate loss-of-aircraft accidents at Paris Air Shows), and we dropped nuclear powered bombers.
posted by paulsc at 4:21 PM on August 21, 2011


Or, uh, maybe Free Live Free. I think Peace is something very different.

Yes, Free Live Free is the one you want.
posted by adamdschneider at 4:21 PM on August 21, 2011


Fuck these arrogant bastards - to think that they could see nothing seriously flawed about flying around the earth with a nuclear rector strapped to an aeroplane. But then again it was the 50s and back then a nuclear powered toothbrush was probably in development.
posted by the noob at 4:44 PM on August 21, 2011


ORNL weren't the only ones to try unshielded nuclear reactors hanging from towers...
posted by tss at 5:39 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


the Tupolev Tu-95 LAL flew with a running reactor

Huh. Anyone else following Pioneer One? Maybe the unknown Russian craft is one of these things, rather than a stray Soviet spaceship headed back from Mars?
posted by cosmologinaut at 1:05 AM on August 22, 2011


They should dig up the plans and tender for the stealth snowmobile contract.

Completely idiotic. We are investing in militarization of the arctic to guarantee our continued claims to sovereignty there right? So you want to, like, be there unambiguously. Sneaky sneaking is for the intruders, not the owners.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:45 AM on August 22, 2011


From the "Tower Shielding Reactor" link:

''The reactor with its blue glow was the hit of the conference, and many dignitaries from the world visited it. Afterwards, it was sold to the Swiss government and moved to a research institute at Wurenlingen, where it was named Saphir for its blue glow."

So, let's MeFites be on the lookout for some dignitaries, or at least just pretend we have dignity.

posted by obscurator at 12:26 PM on August 22, 2011


oops, italics slipped away from me there..
posted by obscurator at 12:26 PM on August 22, 2011


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