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The Mad Science of Nuclear Airplanes

Consider getting on to an airplane with nuclear-powered engines.

Consider the consequences if an atomic airplane crashes.

The Boeing Company last week received approval from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for an airplane engine that combines the use of lasers and nuclear power.

“Boeing’s newly-patented engine provides thrust in a very different and rather novel manner,” heralded Business Insider

It’s a leap into mad science—and backwards to a 1950s notion of nuclear-powered aircraft.

The patent approval to America’s biggest airplane manufacturer comes as solar power and green fuels are being shown to be feasible energy sources for flight—as they are for uses on earth.

Last week an airplane using only solar power, Solar Impulse 2, landed in Hawaii after flying across the Pacific. It’s to go on flying around the world. Also last week, in an expansion of the use of biofuels for aviation, United Airlines announced the start of flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco of jets using fuel derived from farm waste. United further said it will invest $30 million in one of the major producers of jet bio-fuels, Fulcrum BioEnergy.

The Boeing scheme would have lasers in an airplane engine bombard deuterium or tritium causing a nuclear explosion with its force providing thrust.

Business Insider features a video on its website page with its article on the Boeing patent that features, Deepak Gupta, founder of PatentYogi, a YouTube channel. Gupta declares: “This is another cool invention from Boeing. Boeing has patented nuclear power aircrafts. The engines of these aircrafts include a unique propulsion system.”

As Gupta explains the process:

“A stream of pellets containing nuclear material such as deuterium or tritium is fed into a hot-spot within a thruster of the aircraft. Then multiple high powered laser beams are all focused onto the hot spot. The pellet is instantly vaporized and the high temperature causes a nuclear fusion reaction. In effect, it causes a tiny nuclear explosion that scatters atoms and high energy neutrons in all directions. This flow of material is concentrated to exit out of the thruster thus propelling the aircraft forward with great force.”

“And this is where Boeing has done something extremely clever,” Gupta continues. “The inner walls of the thruster are coated with…Uranium-238 that undergoes a nuclear fission reaction upon being struck by high energy neutrons. This releases enormous energy in the form of heat. A coolant is circulated along the inner walls to pick up this heat and power a turbine which in turn generates huge amounts of electric power. And guess what this electric power is used for? To power the same lasers that created the electric power.”

“Soon,” says Gupta, “tiny nuclear bombs exploding inside a plane may be business as usual.” He adds: “I would love to use these non-polluting aircraft.”

Is the Boeing scheme really the basis for mon-polluting aircraft?

No way, says Jim Riccio, nuclear analyst for Greenpeace. “Since the supposed ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ [the effort to build more nuclear power plants] is dead in the west, there are some who are stretching to find applications for nuclear power—and this is a very long stretch.”

“Imagine getting into an airplane that has minor nuclear explosions for propulsion,” said Riccio. And “what about the implications of such an aircraft going down? We just saw an F-16 come down over South Carolina, its jet engine landing in someone’s backyard.”

“Meanwhile, we have breakthroughs in solar energy—to the extent of that solar plane showing solar’s potential,” said Riccio. “Solar energy is being used to accomplish things that nuclear couldn’t, as we watch solar costs plummet and nuclear go through the roof. The future is solar, not nuclear, despite Boeing’s attempt.”

Garry Morgan, long experienced in radiation issues including as a nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialist in the U.S. Army, notes that “this is not the first time atomic engines for aircraft have been tried.”

In the 1950s the U.S. military developed nuclear-powered aircraft but ran into the huge problem of requiring “heavy shielding” to protect pilots and crew from radioactivity, noted Morgan. He is now director of community radiation and health monitoring for the Bellafonte Efficiency & Sustainability Team—Mothers Against Tennessee River Radiation, initiatives of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

In the military’s Nuclear Energy for Propulsion of Aircraft project of the 50s, ground tests were conducted of atomic airplane engines. A B-36 bomber was renamed an NB-36—NB for Nuclear Bomber—and made numerous test flights with an onboard reactor operating although not used to power engines.

Regarding the Boeing scheme, the result of the Uranium-238 being struck by neutrons would be some it being transformed into Plutonium-239, said Morgan. Plutonium has long been described as the most toxic radioactive substance, and Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years, thus once created it remains radioactive for 240,000 years.

“I don’t understand how they are going to overcome the emissions problems and how the shielding issue would be handled,” said Morgan.

As to a crash of an airplane with atomic engines, “It would be a real mess. You’d have lethal material spread all over the place.”

The patent lists Boeing, based in Chicago, as “applicant” and the “inventors” of the proposed engine as: Frank O. Chandler, director of Advanced Vehicle Subsystems and Technologies at Boeing’s The Phantom Works; Boeing engineer James S. Herzberg; and Robert J. Budica, who has been Boeing’s director of strategic technologies.

“As of now,” says Business Insider, ”the engine lives only in patent documents. The technology is so-out-there that it’s unclear if anyone will ever use it.”

In a 1960 book, Nuclear Flight: The United States Air Force Program for Atomic Jets, Missiles, and Rockets, edited by Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth F. Glantz, then Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Development, Lt. General Roscoe C. Wilson, spoke of nuclear bombers with “unlimited range” being on “missions of several days duration.”

Nukespeak: the Selling of Nuclear Technology in the US by Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C. Bell and Rory O’Connor, published in 1983 with a new e-book edition in 2011, relates:

“Atomic-powered airplanes would make long-distance bombing easier, since the planes were expected to be able to circle the globe without refueling.” As late as 1959, it notes, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were assuring Congress of the military potential of nuclear-powered aircraft and urging that they be built. But nixing the program in 1961—after more than $1 billion in 1950s dollars had been spent—was then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who told Congress that an atomic airplane would “expel some fraction of radioactive fission products into the atmosphere, creating an important public relations problem if not an actual physical hazard.”

More articles by:

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

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