The Golden Age: Nuclear-powered Aircraft

The North American XB-70, which might have become the USAF's main nuclear-powered bomber platform. Sketch by the author in ink and Copic markers.

Soon I will be writing on this blog about the history of the United States Air Force's efforts to produce a nuclear-powered strategic bomber platform. It's a story told in bits and pieces elsewhere and there's some very fine writing on the subject out there, but it's something I've wanted to write about for some time myself. For those of us who develop any type of technology more or less from the ground up—as I do myself in software design—the story of the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program of the USAF and the Atomic Energy Commission is one of the greatest stories ever told about hardcore engineering and very big dreams every step of the way. It remains a story that should inspire, even though the program was itself doomed in the end. That said, it was doomed for political reasons more than technical ones: by the time the billions that some said were "wasted" had been spent on this program, many of its most-crucial problems actually had been solved. The issue of shielding the aircrew from the nuclear reactor was still a big problem but even that was nearly worked out, and the operational issues of power-generation (reactor) and power-plant (the engines, in the conventional aerospace application of the term) were producing very good outcomes. 

I hope to get the main article on this topic up in the coming week or so, but a few points to think about in the meantime—points I hope those of you who teach or train others or work in any capacity where you may share with others aspects of success in American engineering and technology may wish to use in your own work or teaching. I firmly believe the story of the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program has many lessons for today's efforts in both nuclear and aerospace technology design. Moreover, it's also a great story of how a massive industrial engineering program ran aground due to cost overruns and frankly, too many cooks spoiling the stew.

Some aspects to consider:

—The fabled North American XB-70 was one of several aircraft considered for the placement of a nuclear power-plant for its propulsion when it went operational. There was a truly dynamic synergy in the design of this beautiful aircraft alongside the design of nuclear technology to provide it with the capacity to stay aloft for an unhindered amount of time if required to do so.

—In tandem with the concept of nuclear propulsion arose the idea of borane fuels for the same aircraft: these advanced fuels—known in general as "zip fuels"—would provide a number of operational advantages to conventional jet fuels but also would have the additional advantage that boron-6 is a good neutron absorber so the tanks for the borane fuels could actually be built around the reactor and help shield it while providing a back-up fuel source (in case the reactor somehow) failed that could be switched over to power the aircraft's jet engines. An entire fuel production plant for these borane fuels was planned (but not built) in the California desert near Edwards Air Force Base (Air Force Plant #72). 

—Say you're an air force and you want a nuclear-powered bomber. Where do you go? To the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Department of General Electric, of course, where designers will consult several books written on the topic and bring your bomber to life. In the 1950s, nuclear could do anything and a cottage industry built up around even the idea of nuclear powered aircraft. For real. What a strangely wonderful time. Seriously though, given how specialized an area of inquiry this was, the sheer amount of industry that came of it was staggering—but it wasn't a waste of time or money, either, though the program never did produce a production aircraft per the Air Force's mandates for the program. What it did result in however was a vast variety of innovations, some of which were useful in the space program and some that were useful in other ways. For that matter, consider this: given the aforementioned borane fuels—which are very toxic—a fair amount of research was done regarding the impact of these compounds on humans, mostly by the USAF. From that research, more general information about toxicology was obtained that was applied in other areas of medicine and made several industries a little safer. This is a classic case of a large research program spawning innovations in areas that many who brought the program together probably never even imagined would be touched by its areas of research. 

—The USSR, of course, had its own like-minded program towards nuclear-powered flight. They made more actual progress towards a viable nuclear-powered aircraft than the USAF did, however, they spent much less effort in ensuring the safety of their aircrews in doing so. As too often was true of the Soviets, the human cost was not fully factored into the equation. A whole article even could be written about how the differences in US and USSR approaches to these programs reflect more general trends in how technological research and development has been conducted in these nations. Some of the lessons that should have been learned in the Soviet nuclear aircraft program were harbingers of things like the Kursk disaster decades later.

—The political death of the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program is a cautionary tale of how public and political opinion towards expensive and complex nuclear projects could turn sour in short order—it was one of the first instances in American history of nuclear going from being view by the public and elected officials as a means of solving very crucial problems to being seen as a problem in and of itself. That's worth some serious investigation and inquiry right there.


So, my article on this fascinating topic is in the works, but for now, just a heads-up to think about this amazing program that reached towards solving some of the biggest issues in aviation and represents so much of the meaning and intention of Cold War-era technological development. 

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