Monday, October 27, 2008

Aviation's nuclear future

Some time ago, I predicted that Formula 1 cars will eventually be propelled by nuclear reactors:

Each car will be powered by a small fission reactor, rather like those in nuclear submarines, but lighter and smaller. Whilst some might argue that a nuclear pile in the rear of a 200mph projectile is a recipe for disaster, nothing could be further from the truth. The neutrons emitted by the fission reaction can be absorbed by a material such as boron, and the gamma rays can be absorbed by a shield made from a high atomic number metal, such as tantalum. The only remaining hazard then arises from the fission products in the reactor, and the danger of releasing these products into the environment in the event of a crash. To mitigate against this, nuclear fuel-cycle pit-stops will become necessary: mechanics donned in full protective clothing will remove the fuel cells from the car, insert a new batch, and send the car on its way. The pits and paddock will, of course, need to be decontaminated and decommissioned after every Grand Prix, but this is a small price to pay to infinitesimally reduce global CO2 emissions.

This idea wasn't carried as a news story in The Times, but it seems that the only thing my idea lacked was the authority of a Professorship at Cranfield University. Ian Poll, a Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the latter institution, suggests passenger airliners powered by nuclear reactors:

Professor Poll said the big challenge would be to demonstrate that passengers and crew could be safely shielded from the reactors.

"It's done on nuclear submarines and could be achieved on aircraft by locating the reactors with the engines out on the wings," he said.

"The risk of reactors cracking open in a crash could be reduced by jettisoning them before impact and bringing them down with parachutes."

He said that, in the worst-case scenario, if the armour plating around the reactor was pierced there would be a risk of radioactive contamination over a few square miles.

"If we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of air travel without hindrance from environmental concerns, we need to explore nuclear power. If aviation remains wedded to fossil fuels, it will run into serious trouble," he said.

Jettisoned nuclear reactors parachuting down to safety! Genius.


Doug Hudson said...

Enduring image.

Simon D said...

The US air force did consider the idea in the 1950's. Strange that nobody saw a future for it ...