Atoms In Motion: Portable Reactors, Part One


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Nuclear locomotive.

Nuclear locomotive.


For a while during the 20th century, the mighty atom seemed like the key to limitless power that could be applied to almost any problem. The early success of nuclear-powered submarines was complemented by a wide range of studies and prototypes for nuclear-powered vehicles and portable installations of all types. Engineers hoped to duplicate the transformational effects of the petroleum/internal-combustion engine system with much higher power densities. Concepts seriously considered included strategic bombers, early-warning and anti-submarine platforms, seaplane transports, Doomsday drones, overland trains, mobile power plants and remote power stations. While many remained only concepts, others made it to through to hardware and deployment.

The earliest nuclear weapons designs were so bulky and heavy that planners initially considered delivery by barge or rail. While it’s hard to imagine a wartime scenario that would permit a hostile train to enter enemy territory, in peacetime some thought was given to atomic locomotives. After all, both ships and trains run on oil-fired steam, why not nuclear steam? In 1955 Professor Lyle Borst and his students at the University of Utah came up with a detailed design for a nuclear locomotive. The molten-salt reactor ran on HEU and was only three feet on a side, but required some 200 tons of steel and concrete shielding, and a boxcar-size radiator.

It’s much easier to float reactors than to fly or drive them, and the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program has had the greatest long-term success. The power plant aboard the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was arguably the first portable reactor, and its small size and pressurized-water design proved to be wise. Just how small Navy reactors can be is classified, but the unique NR-1 sub had a reactor core “about the size of a trash can” that fit into a cylinder about 12 feet in diameter and 10 feet feet long.

The Navy also dallied with nuclear-powered aircraft; at one point they commissioned a study from Convair about acquiring a Saunders-Roe Princess flying boat from the Brits and converting it into a nuclear seaplane. Martin worked out plans for a nuclear-powered version of its zoomy jet seaplane, the SeaMaster. McMurdo Station in Antarctica, part of the network of bases the Navy sustains on the White Continent, was heated and powered by a small reactor in the early 1960′s.

The U.S. Air Force’s abortive effort to create a nuclear-powered aircraft led to some classic jokes and some extravagant dead-ends, but ultimately proved the concept. Some surviving design studies show early-warning aircraft laid out like submarines, with wardrooms, workout gyms and multiple decks forward of the heavily shielded engine room. The strategic bomber was to be a highly-modified B-36, although the engines were also considered for the magnificent B-70. By the time of the program’s demise in 1961, the critical challenges of size, weight, shielding and engineering had been worked out, a hangar and runway constructed and an airframe chosen. The growing apprehension about fallout did much to erode confidence in scores of hot reactors rumbling overhead spewing radioactive contrails.

The Air Force’s scariest weapon, the Supersonic Low Altitude Missile, was a nuclear-powered drone bomber would have cruised at treetop level at Mach 3 for months, spewing white-hot radioactive exhaust while tossing hydrogen bombs on its targets. The most practical application of nuclear power by the USAF was to power a remote early-warning radar station in Wyoming in the 1960′s. (Sundance, the town nearest the site, once jailed a guy named Harry Longabaugh, who acquired the nickname “The Sundance Kid”.)

However, the short-lived Army Nuclear Power Program (1955-1975) was responsible for some of the grooviest Atomic Age systems to actually make it into the real world, and a for a remarkable series of firsts in nuclear power. Critical containment technologies were developed first by the ANPP, and they beat the civilian power utilities to get nuclear power online; its SM-1 reactor at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, hooked up to the grid in 1957, months before the first civilian plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania.

Part two appears Monday.


5 Responses to “Atoms In Motion: Portable Reactors, Part One”

  1. Trey says:

    I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the history of nuclear-powered vehicles, and I think this is the most comprehensive listing of novel applications of nuclear power that I’ve encountered. Well done.

  2. Tom O'B says:

    A funny on the McMurdo Station reactor. When they decommission it, a radiology survey showed ‘leakage’ at the site. So the Navy dug up all the dirt and started shipping it state side for burial. Oops, Base McMurdo sits on volcanic ground that is naturally radioactive. What did they do with the dirt in transit? Port Hueneme has the world’s most expensive dirt parking lot.

  3. ajay says:

    I think this is the most comprehensive listing of novel applications of nuclear power that I’ve encountered. Well done.

    What, no ORION?

  4. [...] Monday, May 9th, 2011 | Automotive, Aviation, JFI1, Memory Lane, Science The early success of nuclear-powered submarines was complemented by a wide range of studies and prototypes for nuclear-powered vehicles and [...]

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