Nuclear-powered aircraft

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The only US aircraft to carry a nuclear reactor was the NB-36H. The reactor was never actually connected to the engines. The program was cancelled in 1958. NB-36H with B-50, 1955 - DF-SC-83-09332.jpeg
The only US aircraft to carry a nuclear reactor was the NB-36H. The reactor was never actually connected to the engines. The program was cancelled in 1958.

A nuclear-powered aircraft is a concept for an aircraft intended to be powered by nuclear energy. The intention was to produce a jet engine that would heat compressed air with heat from fission, instead of heat from burning fuel. During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union researched nuclear-powered bomber aircraft, the greater endurance of which could enhance nuclear deterrence, but neither country created any such operational aircraft. [1]

Aircraft machine that is able to fly by gaining support from the air other than the reactions of the air against the earth’s surface

An aircraft is a machine that is able to fly by gaining support from the air. It counters the force of gravity by using either static lift or by using the dynamic lift of an airfoil, or in a few cases the downward thrust from jet engines. Common examples of aircraft include airplanes, helicopters, airships, gliders, and hot air balloons.

Jet engine reaction engine which generates thrust by jet propulsion

A jet engine is a type of reaction engine discharging a fast-moving jet that generates thrust by jet propulsion. This broad definition includes airbreathing jet engines. In general, jet engines are combustion engines.

Cold War State of geopolitical tension after World War II between powers in the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc

The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union with its satellite states, and the United States with its allies after World War II. A common historiography of the conflict begins between 1946, the year U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan's "Long Telegram" from Moscow cemented a U.S. foreign policy of containment of Soviet expansionism threatening strategically vital regions, and the Truman Doctrine of 1947, and ending between the Revolutions of 1989 and the 1991 collapse of the USSR, which ended communism in Eastern Europe. The term "cold" is used because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two sides, but they each supported major regional conflicts known as proxy wars. The conflict split the temporary wartime alliance against Nazi Germany, leaving the USSR and the US as two superpowers with profound economic and political differences.


One inadequately solved design problem was the need for heavy shielding to protect the crew and those on the ground from acute radiation syndrome; other potential problems included dealing with crashes.

Acute radiation syndrome health effect of radiation

Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) is a collection of health effects that are present within 24 hours of exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation. It is also called radiation poisoning, radiation sickness and radiation toxicity.

Some unmanned missile designs included nuclear powered supersonic cruise missiles.

However, the advent of ICBMs, and nuclear submarines in the 1960s greatly diminished the strategic advantage of such aircraft, and respective projects were cancelled; the inherent danger of the technology has prevented its civilian use.

A nuclear submarine is a submarine powered by a nuclear reactor. The performance advantages of nuclear submarines over "conventional" submarines are considerable. Nuclear propulsion, being completely independent of air, frees the submarine from the need to surface frequently, as is necessary for conventional submarines. The large amount of power generated by a nuclear reactor allows nuclear submarines to operate at high speed for long periods of time; and the long interval between refuelings grants a range virtually unlimited, making the only limits on voyage times being imposed by such factors as the need to restock food or other consumables.

U.S. programs


In May 1946, the United States Army Air Forces started the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA) project, which conducted studies until the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) program replaced NEPA in 1951. The ANP program included provisions for studying two different types of nuclear-powered jet engines: General Electric's Direct Air Cycle and Pratt & Whitney's Indirect Air Cycle. ANP planned for Convair to modify two B-36s under the MX-1589 project. One of the B-36s, the NB-36H, was to be used for studying shielding requirements for an airborne reactor, while the other was to be the X-6; however, the program was cancelled before the X-6 was completed.

United States Army Air Forces Aerial warfare branch of the United States army from 1941 to 1947

The United States Army Air Forces, informally known as the Air Force,or United States Army Air Force, was the aerial warfare service component of the United States Army during and immediately after World War II (1939/41–1945), successor to the previous United States Army Air Corps and the direct predecessor of the United States Air Force of today, one of the five uniformed military services. The AAF was a component of the United States Army, which in 1942 was divided functionally by executive order into three autonomous forces: the Army Ground Forces, the Services of Supply, and the Army Air Forces. Each of these forces had a commanding general who reported directly to the Army Chief of Staff.

General Electric American multinational conglomerate corporation

General Electric Company (GE) is an American multinational conglomerate incorporated in New York and headquartered in Boston. As of 2018, the company operates through the following segments: aviation, healthcare, power, renewable energy, digital industry, additive manufacturing, venture capital and finance, lighting, and oil and gas.

Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine manufacturer

Pratt & Whitney is an American aerospace manufacturer with global service operations. It is a subsidiary of United Technologies (UTC). Pratt & Whitney's aircraft engines are widely used in both civil aviation and military aviation. Its headquarters are in East Hartford, Connecticut. As one of the "big three" aero-engine manufacturers, it competes with General Electric and Rolls-Royce, although it has also formed joint ventures with both of these companies. In addition to aircraft engines, Pratt & Whitney manufactures gas turbines for industrial and power generation, and marine turbines. As of 2014, the company reported having 31,500 employees supporting more than 11,000 customers in 180 countries around the world. In 2013, Pratt & Whitney's revenue totaled $14.5 billion.

The first operation of a nuclear aircraft engine occurred on January 31, 1956 using a modified General Electric J47 turbojet engine. [2] The Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program was terminated by Kennedy after the President's annual budget message to Congress in 1961.

General Electric J47 A Turbojet Engine Produced by GE in 1947

The General Electric J47 turbojet was developed by General Electric from its earlier J35. It first flew in May 1948. The J47 was the first axial-flow turbojet approved for commercial use in the United States. It was used in many types of aircraft, and more than 30,000 were manufactured before production ceased in 1956. It saw continued service in the US military until 1978. Packard built 3,025 of the engines under license.

Turbojet jet engine

The turbojet is an airbreathing jet engine, typically used in aircraft. It consists of a gas turbine with a propelling nozzle. The gas turbine has an air inlet, a compressor, a combustion chamber, and a turbine. The compressed air from the compressor is heated by the fuel in the combustion chamber and then allowed to expand through the turbine. The turbine exhaust is then expanded in the propelling nozzle where it is accelerated to high speed to provide thrust. Two engineers, Frank Whittle in the United Kingdom and Hans von Ohain in Germany, developed the concept independently into practical engines during the late 1930s.

Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion

The Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) program and the preceding Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA) project worked to develop a nuclear propulsion system for aircraft. The United States Army Air Forces initiated Project NEPA on May 28, 1946. After funding of $10 million in 1947, NEPA operated until May 1951, when the project was transferred to the joint Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)/USAF ANP. The USAF pursued two different systems for nuclear-powered jet engines, the Direct Air Cycle concept, which was developed by General Electric, and Indirect Air Cycle, which was assigned to Pratt & Whitney. The program was intended to develop and test the Convair X-6, but was cancelled in 1961 before that aircraft was built.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory researched and developed nuclear aircraft engines. Two shielded reactors powered two General Electric J87 turbojet engines to nearly full thrust. Two experimental engines complete with reactor system, HTRE 3 and HTRE 1, are at the EBR-1 facility south of the Idaho National Laboratory 43°30′42.22″N113°0′18″W / 43.5117278°N 113.00500°W / 43.5117278; -113.00500 .

Oak Ridge National Laboratory research facility in Tennessee, USA

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is an American multiprogram science and technology national laboratory sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and administered, managed, and operated by UT–Battelle as a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) under a contract with the DOE. ORNL is the largest science and energy national laboratory in the Department of Energy system by size and by annual budget. ORNL is located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, near Knoxville. ORNL's scientific programs focus on materials, neutron science, energy, high-performance computing, systems biology and national security.

The General Electric J87 was a nuclear-powered turbojet engine designed to power the proposed WS-125 long-range bomber. The program was started in 1955 in conjunction with Convair for a joint engine/airframe proposal for the WS-125. It was one of two nuclear-powered gas turbine projects undertaken by GE, the other one being the X39 project.

Idaho National Laboratory United States Department of Energy complex located in the high desert of eastern Idaho

Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is one of the national laboratories of the United States Department of Energy and is managed by the Battelle Energy Alliance. While the laboratory does other research, historically it has been involved with nuclear research. Much of current knowledge about how nuclear reactors behave and misbehave was discovered at what is now Idaho National Laboratory. John Grossenbacher, former INL director, said, "The history of nuclear energy for peaceful application has principally been written in Idaho".

Experimental HTRE reactors for nuclear aircraft, (HTRE 3 left and HTRE 1 right) on display at Idaho National Laboratory near Arco, Idaho (43deg30'42.22''N 113deg0'18''W / 43.5117278degN 113.00500degW / 43.5117278; -113.00500). Aircraft Reactors Arco ID 2009.jpg
Experimental HTRE reactors for nuclear aircraft, (HTRE 3 left and HTRE 1 right) on display at Idaho National Laboratory near Arco, Idaho ( 43°30′42.22″N113°0′18″W / 43.5117278°N 113.00500°W / 43.5117278; -113.00500 ).

The U.S. designed these engines for use in a new, specially-designed nuclear bomber, the WS-125. Although Eisenhower eventually terminated it by cutting NEPA and telling Congress that the program was not urgent, he backed a small program for developing high temperature materials and high performance reactors; that program was terminated early in the Kennedy administration.

Project Pluto

In 1957, the Air Force and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission contracted with the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory to study the feasibility of applying heat from nuclear reactors to ramjet engines. This research became known as Project Pluto. This program was to provide engines for an unmanned cruise missile, called SLAM, for Supersonic Low Altitude Missile. The program succeeded in producing two test engines, which were operated on the ground. On May 14, 1961, the world's first nuclear ramjet engine, "Tory-IIA," mounted on a railroad car, roared to life for just a few seconds. On July 1, 1964, seven years and six months after it was born, "Project Pluto" was cancelled.


There were several studies and proposals for nuclear powered airships, starting with 1954 study by F.W. Locke Jr for US Navy. [3] In 1957 Edwin J. Kirschner published book The Zeppelin in the Atomic Age, [4] which promoted the use of atomic airships. In 1959 Goodyear presented a plan for nuclear powered airship for both military and commercial use. Several other proposals and papers were published during the next decades.

Soviet programs

Soviet nuclear bomber hoax

The 1 December 1958 issue of Aviation Week included an article, Soviets Flight Testing Nuclear Bomber, that claimed that the Soviets had greatly progressed a nuclear aircraft program: [5] "[a] nuclear-powered bomber is being flight tested in the Soviet Union. Completed about six months ago, this aircraft has been flying in the Moscow area for at least two months. It has been observed both in flight and on the ground by a wide variety of foreign observers from Communist and non-Communist countries." Unlike the US designs of the same era, which were purely experimental, the article noted that "The Soviet aircraft is a prototype of a design to perform a military mission as a continuous airborne alert warning system and missile launching platform." Photographs illustrated the article, along with technical diagrams on the proposed layout; these were so widely seen that one company produced a plastic model aircraft based on the diagrams in the article. An editorial on the topic accompanied the article. [6]

Concerns were soon expressed in Washington that "the Russians were from three to five years ahead of the US in the field of atomic aircraft engines and that they would move even further ahead unless the US pressed forward with its own program". [7] These concerns caused continued but temporary funding of the US's own program.

The aircraft in the photographs was later revealed to be the conventional Myasishchev M-50 Bounder, a medium-range strategic bomber that performed like the USAFs B-58 Hustler. The design was considered a failure, never entered service, and was revealed to the public on Soviet Aviation Day in 1963 at Monino, putting the issue to rest. [8]

Tupolev Tu-119

The Soviet program of nuclear aircraft development resulted in the experimental Tupolev Tu-119, or the Tu-95LAL (Russian : LAL- Летающая Атомная Лаборатория, lit.  'Flying Nuclear Laboratory') which derived from the Tupolev Tu-95 bomber. It had 4 conventional turboprop engines and an onboard nuclear reactor. The Tu-119 completed 34 research flights, most of which were made with the reactor shut down. The main purpose of the flight phase was examining the effectiveness of the radiation shielding, which was one of the main concerns for the engineers. Massive shielding was needed in order to reduce radiation levels, and the obvious potential of the ICBM made the expensive program superfluous, and around the mid-1960s it was cancelled.

Several other projects, like the supersonic Tupolev Tu-120 [9] reached only the design phase. [10] [11]

Russian programs

In February 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia had developed a new, nuclear-powered cruise missile with nuclear warhead that can evade air and missile defenses and hit any point on the globe. According to the statements its first flight test occurred in 2017. It was claimed to feature "a small-size super-powerful power plant that can be placed inside the hull of a cruise missile and guarantee a range of flight ten times greater than that of other missiles." The video showed the missile evading defense systems over the Atlantic, flying over Cape Horn and finally north towards Hawaii. [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] To date there is no publicly available evidence to verify these statements. The Pentagon is aware of a Russian test of a nuclear-powered cruise missile but the system is still under development and had crashed in the Arctic in 2017. [17] [18] [19] A RAND Corporation researcher specializing in Russia said "My guess is they're not bluffing, that they've flight-tested this thing. But that's incredible." [20] According to a CSIS fellow, such a nuclear powered missile "has an almost unlimited range -- you could have it flying around for long periods of time before you order it to hit something" [21] Putin's statements and the video showing a concept of the missile in flight suggest that it is not a supersonic ramjet like Project Pluto but a subsonic vehicle with a nuclear-heated turbojet or turbofan engine.

The new cruise missile will be named Burevestnik (Thunderbird). [22]

See also

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Cruise missile Aerodynamic missile

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Tupolev Tu-144 Supersonic airliner

The Tupolev Tu-144 is a retired jet airliner and commercial supersonic transport aircraft (SST). It is one of only two SSTs to enter commercial service; the other being the Anglo-French Concorde. The design was a product of the Tupolev design bureau, headed by Alexei Tupolev, of the Soviet Union and manufactured by the Voronezh Aircraft Production Association in Voronezh, Russia. It conducted 55 passenger service flights, at an average service altitude of 16,000 metres (52,000 ft) and cruised at a speed of around 2,000 kilometres per hour (1,200 mph).

Project Pluto was a United States government program to develop nuclear-powered ramjet engines for use in cruise missiles. Two experimental engines were tested at the United States Department of Energy Nevada Test Site (NTS) in 1961 and 1964.

North American XB-70 Valkyrie strategic bomber

The North American Aviation XB-70 Valkyrie was the prototype version of the planned B-70 nuclear-armed, deep-penetration strategic bomber for the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command. Designed in the late 1950s by North American Aviation, the six-engined Valkyrie was capable of cruising for thousands of miles at Mach 3+ while flying at 70,000 feet (21,000 m).

Strategic bomber type of heavy bomber aircraft designed to drop large amounts of ordnance

A strategic bomber is a medium to long range penetration bomber aircraft designed to drop large amounts of air-to-ground weaponry onto a distant target for the purposes of debilitating the enemy's capacity to wage war. Unlike tactical bombers, penetrators, fighter-bombers, and attack aircraft, which are used in air interdiction operations to attack enemy combatants and military equipment, strategic bombers are designed to fly into enemy territory to destroy strategic targets. In addition to strategic bombing, strategic bombers can be used for tactical missions. There are currently three countries that operate strategic bombers: the United States, Russia, and China.

Nuclear propulsion propulsion methods that use a nuclear reaction as the primary power source

Nuclear propulsion includes a wide variety of propulsion methods that fulfill the promise of the Atomic Age by using some form of nuclear reaction as their primary power source. The idea of using nuclear material for propulsion dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. In 1903 it was hypothesised that radioactive material, radium, might be a suitable fuel for engines to propel cars, boats, and planes. H. G. Wells picked up this idea in his 1914 fiction work The World Set Free.

Tupolev is a Soviet, and later a Russian aerospace and defence company, headquartered in Basmanny District, Central Administrative Okrug, Moscow. Known officially as Joint Stock Company Tupolev, it is the successor of the Tupolev OKB or Tupolev Design Bureau headed by the Soviet aerospace engineer A.N. Tupolev. The company celebrated its 90th anniversary on October 22, 2012. The Russian government merged Tupolev with Mikoyan, Ilyushin, Irkut, Sukhoi, and Yakovlev as a new company named the United Aircraft Corporation.

Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber aircraft

The Tupolev Tu-160 is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing heavy strategic bomber designed by the Tupolev Design Bureau in the Soviet Union. It is the largest and heaviest Mach 2+ supersonic military aircraft ever built and second only to the comparable XB-70 Valkyrie in overall length. It is the largest and heaviest combat aircraft, the fastest bomber now in use and the largest and heaviest variable-sweep wing airplane ever flown.

Supersonic Low Altitude Missile

The Supersonic Low Altitude Missile or SLAM was a U.S. Air Force nuclear weapons project conceived around 1955, and cancelled in 1964. SLAMs were conceived of as unmanned nuclear-powered ramjets capable of delivering thermonuclear warheads deep into enemy territory. The development of ICBMs in the 1950s rendered the concept of SLAMs obsolete. Advances in defensive ground radar also made the stratagem of low-altitude evasion ineffective. Although it never proceeded beyond the initial design and testing phase before being declared obsolete, the design contained several radical innovations as a nuclear delivery system.

The Convair X-6 was a proposed experimental aircraft project to develop and evaluate a nuclear-powered jet aircraft. The project was to use a Convair B-36 bomber as a testbed aircraft, and though one NB-36H was modified during the early stages of the project, the program was canceled before the actual X-6 and its nuclear reactor engines were completed. The X-6 was part of a larger series of programs, costing US$7 billion in all, that ran from 1946 through 1961. Because such an aircraft's range would not have been limited by liquid jet fuel, it was theorized that nuclear-powered strategic bombers would be able to stay airborne for weeks at a time.

Tupolev Tu-95 Russian strategic bomber aircraft

The Tupolev Tu-95 is a large, four-engine turboprop-powered strategic bomber and missile platform. First flown in 1952, the Tu-95 entered service with the Soviet Union in 1956 and is expected to serve the Russian Aerospace Forces until at least 2040. A development of the bomber for maritime patrol is designated Tu-142, while a passenger airliner derivative was called Tu-114.

Tupolev Tu-22M strategic bomber aircraft

The Tupolev Tu-22M is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing, long-range strategic and maritime strike bomber developed by the Tupolev Design Bureau. According to some sources, the bomber was believed to be designated Tu-26 at one time. During the Cold War, the Tu-22M was operated by the Soviet Air Forces (VVS) in a missile carrier strategic bombing role, and by the Soviet Naval Aviation in a long-range maritime anti-shipping role. Significant numbers remain in service with the Russian Air Force, and as of 2014 more than 100 Tu-22Ms are in use.

Myasishchev M-50 prototype strategic bomber

The Myasishchev M-50 is a Soviet prototype four-jet engine supersonic strategic bomber, which never attained service. Only one flightworthy prototype was built, which was first flown in October 1959. The M-50 was constructed by the Myasishchev design bureau.

Tupolev Tu-95LAL airplane

The Tupolev Tu-95LAL,, was an experimental aircraft that was a modified Tupolev Tu-95 Soviet bomber aircraft, which flew from 1961 to 1965, analogous to the United States' earlier Convair NB-36H. It was intended to see whether a nuclear reactor could be used to power an aircraft, primarily testing airborne operation of a reactor and shielding for components and crew.

Convair NB-36H

The Convair NB-36H was an experimental aircraft that carried a nuclear reactor. It was also known as the "Crusader". It was created for the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program, or the ANP, to show the feasibility of a nuclear-powered bomber. Its development ended with the cancellation of the ANP program.

The Tupolev Samolyot 135 was a designation that was used for two different strategic bomber projects in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s, neither of which progressed beyond the drawing board.


  2. Thornton, G. "Introduction to nuclear propulsion- introduc- tion and background lecture 1, feb. 26-28, 1963". Nuclear Materials Propulsion Operation. NASA Technical Report Server. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  3. Atomic Airships by John J. Geoghegan. Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Aviation History magazine.
  4. The Zeppelin in the Atomic Age: The Past, Present and Future of the Rigid Lighter-Than-Air Aircraft, Kirschner, Edwin J. Published by University of Illinois Press (1957)
  5. Soviets Flight Testing Nuclear Bomber, Aviation Week, 1 December 1958, p. 27.
  6. "Modelarchives". Retrieved 2 March 2018.
  7. Soviet Nuclear Plane Possibility Conceded, Ford Eastman, Aviation Week, 19 January 1959, p. 29.
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  10. Buttler & Gordon 2004 , pp. 78–83
  11. Colon 2009
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  14. "Russia's new hypersonic Sarmat ICBM has begun active testing – Putin (VIDEO)". Retrieved 2 March 2018.
  15. Troianovski, Anton (1 March 2018). "Putin claims Russia is developing nuclear arms capable of avoiding missile defenses" . Retrieved 2 March 2018 via
  16. "Putin says 'no one in the world has anything like' all-powerful nuclear missile". Retrieved 2 March 2018.
  17. Bump, Philip (1 March 2018). "What Russia's newly announced nuclear systems actually mean" . Retrieved 2 March 2018 via
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  21. "Q&A: Arms Expert Says Putin's Weapons Boasts Look Like 'Overkill'". RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Retrieved 2 March 2018.