America’s Insane Plan for Nuclear Powered Planes

This episode of Real Engineering is brought
to you by CuriosityStream, watch over 2,400 documentaries for free for 31 days at Some crazy things happened during the Cold
War. Dogs were put into orbit, bears were fired out of supersonic jets, and humans landed
on the moon. Needless to say, humans were going through a rough break-up and were really
trying to find themselves. All of these events were centered around one technology that changed
the game for every human on this planet, nuclear energy. The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima woke
the world to a nuclear future. Changing the political and cultural landscape of the world
forever. Infecting the imaginations of people all over the world. Spawning monster stories
like Godzilla, in Japan, and heroes like the Incredible Hulk and Spiderman in the United
States. People dreamed of a future where electricity was free, while simultaneously fearing the
ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. These fears and dreams came together to form
perhaps one of the most interesting technologies conceived during the Cold War. Nuclear powered
planes. During World War 2 research and development
of nuclear energy had been focused on its weaponization, but with the wars conclusion,
the United States began to seek out ways of utilizing the power of the atom to fuel their
energy needs. The Atomic Energy Commission was created in 1946 with the express purpose
of commercialising this new technology, and just one year later the US Air Force invested
10 million dollars [1] into studying the feasibility of utilizing this energy to power their long-range
bombers. In an era before in-flight refueling and ICBMs had been perfected, the technology
was appealing. With just a small amount of fuel, a bomber could fly indefinitely. It
would be capable of reaching anywhere in enemy territory. An omnipotent threat to any advisory.
Despite the obvious dangers of combining these two technologies, the possibilities proved
too tantalizing. From 1948 to 1951 the brunt of the research
centered around a means to transfer the energy generated by nuclear fission to propulsion. Heat energy is gained through nuclear fission.
When uranium is bombarded with a neutron it absorbs that neutron into its nucleus, which
causes severe vibrations ripping the atom apart, producing heat, additional neutrons
and new lighter atoms. But the sum of products of that split are lighter than the original
atom.[2] Experimental proof of Einstein’s ground breaking 1905 paper teaching the world
of the energy and mass relationship through the equation of E equals m c squared. The
energy released by a single uranium fission reaction like this is tiny, at 200 million
electron volts [3], but crucially uranium produces additional neutrons when it splits
allowing for a chain reaction to occur. So, for very little input energy we can get a
tremendous amount of kinetic energy as an output in the form of heat. When controlled
this reaction can give us energy to heat water and power our steam turbines when uncontrolled
this reaction gives us the atomic bomb. Experiments began here in the Idaho National
Engineering and Environment Laboratory. Dubbed the HTRE, standing for Heat Transfer Reactor
Experiment, these engines sought to find the most efficient solution for transforming this
thermal energy into thrust. [4] They eventually came to the HTRE-3. Consisting
of 2 modified general electric J47 engines, that would perform both propulsion and cooling
functions. Air would be ducted from the low-pressure compressor through the reactor core, where
it would gain heat and expand, this air would then pass through the high-pressure turbine
and exhaust to provide power and thrust. As the air was needed for cooling, the engine
had to be started using traditional fuel sources, allowing the air to pass through the cool
reactor. Once sufficient airflow was achieved the reactor could then be brought up to power.
The engine contained a temperature control thermocouple [5], which fed data to a control
module that would automatically close the chemical fuel valve as the heat of the nuclear
reactor began to be added until the valve was completely closed. The HTRE-3 was successfully run multiple times,
but there were still several problems to be solved. Perhaps chief among these was the
energy transfer method’s propensity for spewing radioactive air out of its exhaust. This was an open or direct cycle configuration,
meaning the air is directly used to cool the reactor core. [6] This was a simpler set-up,
requiring no additional pumps within the nuclear reactor, that the program managers at General
Electric preferred, but resulted in air passing through the highly radioactive core and thus
being contaminated, and subsequently exhausted to atmosphere. Obviously not an ideal situation, and this
program actually spurred the creation of the very first molten salt nuclear reactor through
the ARE, or Aircraft Reactor Experiment. This was instead a closed cycle system, where
a molten uranium tetrafluoride salt is used a fuel, while a secondary closed loop containing
molten salt with no uranium was used as a coolant. This coolant would then pass through
a liquid-to-air heat exchanger to power the turbine. This would result in radically reduced
radioactivity in the exhaust, but required more plumbing to circulate the liquids in
the two inner closed loops, and resulted in a lower efficiency as we are introducing an
additional heat transfer step that allows more heat to the be lost to the plumbing and
environment. This method was never tested with a jet engine,
but this is the earliest ancestor of the thorium reactors which are easily the most requested
topic on this channel, as a result of their potential to provide cheap and safe nuclear
energy, but research and funding for this technology was gradually dropped. Had the program developed further, these molten
salt reactors likely would have gone on to power any eventually bomber, had the power
to weight issues been overcome. These power to weight issues were one of the
primary roads blocks facing designers. While nuclear energy can provide extremely long
lasting energy, its power output, the energy provided per unit time, is not infinite. Nuclear
reactors like this have maximum power settings, limited by the heat the cooling system can
transport away before it can begin to melt and damage the reactor and it’s control
mechanisms. This made it difficult to design a reactor capable of providing enough energy
to power jet engines with enough thrust to get the gargantuan weight of the reactor off
the ground. The HTRE-3 is estimated to have weighed 45
metric tonnes and could produce up to 35 megawatts of thermal output. Far too large and heavy,
and short of the 50 megawatts of thermal output targeted for a flight worthy power source.
[2] The HTRE-3 did include removable radiation
shielding, consisting of a stainless steel shell with a lead core surrounded by water
[R1-4], but further testing was needed to design and assess shielding for an aircraft. To do this Convair modified a B-36, renaming
it the NB-36H Crusader. The B-36 was the only aircraft in the United State’s arsenal capable
of taking off with a massive nuclear reactor, and it’s associated shielding and coolant
systems. Fitting it with a small 1 megawatt reactor, dubbed the ASTR, or aircraft shield
test reactor, which was lifted from a shielded underground vault and mounted in the B-36s
bomb bay moments before take-off. [1][10] A plane could never carry the amount of lead
needed to shield every facet of a reactor, so this plane would test shadow shielding,
which would primarily shield the crew and instruments in the cockpit. Shielding for
the reactor was achieved with water tanks which could be filled or drained to vary the
shielding and allow the nuclear engineers on board to assess the minimum volume of water
needed to protect the planes crew and instruments, with a 5 tonne 13-centimetre lead shield mounted
between the reactor and the crew compartment. On top of this, the crew compartment was an
11 tonne lead and rubber shielded removable section. The leaded glass windows were a foot
thick, and a closed circuit tv system was used to monitor the reactor. The plane was further modified with air scoops
to funnel air to the coolant system that would trade heat with the internal closed loop water
coolant, and then exhaust the heat to atmosphere. The Crusader made its maiden flight on September
17th 1955. The reactor provided no power to the engines, but the plane would make a total
of 47 flights, which occured only over remote land far from human populations. The plane
was escorted at all times by a B-50, which contained sensors to measure any air scattered
radiation emitted from the reactor and air coolant system. It also contained a team of
marines ready to parachute and secure a crash location if the need arose. At this point, the United States was at the
forefront of aircraft nuclear propulsion technology and likely could have developed the technology
far enough to produce an nuclear-powered plane. But, for the best, it never came to fruition. On November 18th, 1958 the HTRE-3 engine suffered
a meltdown when temperature sensors malfunctioned, recording a lower temperature and withdrawing
control rods. [7] This may have been the impetus to shake sense
into the US Government, to remind them that a mobile nuclear meltdown was simply not something
they wanted to contend with. On top of all this, with the advancement of aerial refueling
and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the technology was made completely redundant. President Kennedy ultimately cancelled the
program in 1961, just 1 month into his presidency. Putting an end to the insane idea. This hysteria
and fear of aerial bombing has made humans do some astounding evil and stupid things.
If you would like to learn more about this gradual descent into madness that the advent
of aerial bombing fostered, I highly recommend watching this documentary titled the Bombing
War: From Guernica to Hiroshima. It takes you from the first small grenade dropped from
a plane in World War 1 all the way to the monstrous and unnecessary bombing campaigns
that took place in Europe and Asia in World War 2. It’s a fascinating insight into the
minds of the civilians that lived through those times and the madness that gripped the
military leaders that approved them. You can watch it now, for free, by signing
up to curiositystream using the code realengineering, or using the link the description. This will
give you a month of completely free access to over 2,400 documentaries and nonfiction
titles from some of the world’s best filmmakers. After that first free month you can continue
you access for just two dollars ninety nine a month. As usual thanks for watching and thank you
to all my Patreon supporters. If you would like to see more from me, the links to my
instagram, twitter, discord server and subreddit are below.

Comments 100

  • This is my first spot with curiositystream and I am delighted. I absolutely loved that documentary I mentioned at the end. Well worth the watch, especially when it's free with this link:

  • There's a few different animal remains on the moon as well

  • Why don't we use electricity to heat the water then the steam turns the turbine and creates electricity again? Similar to nuclear reactors, of course to make such a power plant will occupy more construction area but absolutely no pollution to the environment even when the plant is in trouble.

  • You know…..I'm kinda glad they didn't get anywhere in this field of nuclear tech. I mean God forbid terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear powered plane and caused into a skyscraper. It would have made the 911 incident 10 times worse, than what happened years ago. it would been far worse than Chernobyl.

  • Anyone have any idea why I laugh at 0:32?

  • This is not really a bad idea. If they kept on developing it we could have commercial nuclear planes right now with no carbon emissions. Technologies like this would have saved us, not buried us. Climate change could have been stopped if it wasn’t for the hysteria and fear of nuclear energy.

  • Wake up dont need the music beat in back round , inconsiderate people most annoying 😡😡

  • Why is this insane?

  • 9/11.Psyop Staged by the United Terrorist Snakes ( War Criminal ) & the World Elite..

  • AA shoots you down
    I'm taking you with me

  • Mother FuCker Don't even How to Copy properly…

    Piece of scum..

  • 1:54 Are you Irish?

  • What about Iron Man's ARC REACTOR?

  • since you mentioned it, I'd like to add to the chorus of people requesting that you do a video on Molten Salt Reactors/ Thorium. Also, I know you've probably already been asked this, but you should do an episode on Project Orion.

  • A flying "Dirty-Bomb." Good thing it failed to come into fruition.

  • 0:52 Sad Tesla noises

  • Kinetic energy in the form of heat?

  • If there are nuclear submarines then why would a nuclear plane be an “insane idea”?

  • Those “unnecessary” bombing runs saved many, many lives by ending the war.

  • With nuclear-powered aircraft carriers you have enough room to store enough food to make having a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier make sense. I don't see those aircraft (or any other bomber, for that matter) using much of its available space used to store enough food to keep the crew fed for long enough to make having a nuclear-powered aircraft worthwhile. That's the main question in my mind when I hear about nuclear-powered aircraft. What's the point if the crew starves to death while flying in the air for months (or even years) at a time?

  • Nuclear power plants have been successfully used in military ships and submarines for decades. So seeing if they would work in planes is not that insane. The type of uranium used in power plants is not concentrated enough to result in a nuclear bomb. Something that is not clear from your video. Countries all over the world are moving to nuclear power because it is cheap and has no greenhouse gases. Even Vietnam is building a nuclear power plant. But superstitious Americans won't build them.

  • The human race is truly doomed?

  • Uranium will run out once they start fully implementing on everything… Then what… Uranium is for a thing in this world, it ain't for planes using it…

  • The raptor is nuclear powered that why they didn't export it! They fake the refueling!

  • This is starting to sound like the Fallout games

  • 9:45 what planes are that?

  • Thorium LFTRs

  • damn your good with adverts

  • 7:14 – that's an impressive, if not ominous looking nose the NB-36 had on it. This is the first time ever I see the footage of the NB-36.

  • 00:50 Learn something about Nikola Tesla and the goverment that loves you so much. Keep dreaming sheeps!

  • 09:21 You sure? have you ever been to area 51? Exactly!

  • Ur videos have made me so much smarter they are amazing

  • Why was this an insane idea? If it was developed to the point where it would be safe and cost effective (probably by giving it a thorium salt reactor as a power plant) it could then be used in peacetime applications. Imagine a jumbo jet or an airbus being powered by a nuclear reactor.

    Also, the technology can also be applied to trucks and busses and the like.

    By further developing this tech we can eventually eliminate most fossil fuel consumption and save business money, which eventually trickles down to us.

  • USA might have stopped but not the ruskies

  • This comment is not brought to you by curiosity stream….

  • Does anyone really understand e=mc2?

  • As if pollution wasn't bad enough already.

  • What,cheese for maus,Japanese cherry blossom pencils,now we have nuke power plane,this world is crazy

  • Really makes you realize just how close the fallout universe could of come true.

  • at 4:44 the good old aft. plug
    I kinda think that's a big one

  • North korea’s insane plan to nuke USA

  • do one of the russian version please,they one flew under it's own reactor's power

  • NeEnergy

  • Yer Uranium atoms need more nucleons, you lazy bastard. Otherwise a good video.

  • It’s the start of the fallout universe-

  • I am a simple person. I see a b 36 in the thumbnail, I click

  • Nuclear made man a more stupid cunt and Yanks became God to themselves, but still 1st level cunts just as dictorial as Moa Ze Tung and Stalin.

  • No kærrs this episode eh?

  • Nuclear powered bomber plane for carry nuclear bomb? So basically it become 1+1 nuclear bomb when crash into enemy base

  • I almost wonder if this would've worked if they drove propellers through steam. The wings could act like large condensers too maybe.

  • Arthur C. Clark's story of the first man on the moon started out with a flight on a commercial atomic-powered jet. Although Clark got some things very right, so much was so embarrassingly wrong, Clark ordered that the book NEVER be reprinted.

  • What is this bias towards nuclear energy? People are so opposed to nuclear power because they think they're nothing but weapons and dangerous. Nuclear energy is one of the most efficient and safest forms of energy production and very likely one of the best ways to get clean energy and lower our usage of fossil fuels and natural gas.

  • You talk too much

  • It's easy to look back from our current times, with smart bombs and laser guided weapons, and call our military leaders monsters for the civilian causalities caused by wartime bombings, but they tried to choose the best option that would ultimately save lives. Sure there were mistakes and bad decisions, but LEARNING from those mistakes is the best course of action.

  • We can't explore space without figuring out this nuclear ish

  • As a Canadian (i.e., that land mass right in between the USA and USSR), I'm kinda glad this didn't take off.

  • Google search "military Broken Arrow".

  • Hate to see that these projects won't be restarted using newer materials and resources. A network of high altitude drones that won't require refueling would give us a better battlefield advantage for artillery strikes and observation if we had to conduct near-peer conventional war

  • Air crash disaster. One airplane killed one country, crashing in the capital airport.

  • This is a low key nuclear kamikaze haha fk u murica lmao

  • And thanks to all this moronic ideas we have so much cancer cases in the world thanks for fucking the world up with all you nuclear weapons I swear ppl are either blind or stupid we make nuclear weapons to kill you enemies but yet we fuck up the only planet we have and they are call geniuses

  • Russia is making a nuke powered cruise missile.

  • S.H.I.E.L.D. was compromised!

  • I thought the Russians made a nuclear power plane?

  • Omg what would happen to oil industry if this came to fruition nothing bc the tickets in charge have shared invoilvnvand why would they cut their profits world good I shit and I love radiohead

  • Exactly the same as submarines but the subs need oil for generators pure conspiracy by government beards with shares in Saudi arabia

  • America first needs to solve the issue with its current airplanes, then think about more destructive airplanes #boeing737max

  • Not sure I would classify a nuke plane as evil.

  • She flew from EGR one in Idaho to Area 51 for testing but crash because the pilot and crew were radiated from the leakage and history was made and the snow balls had gone crazy ever since there are no aliens on Earth at this time never have been never will be but they make money off of you crazy people trying to make up the alien story UFOs they're just military hardware because of UFO saucer avrocar is also project silver bug crashed in Russia in the Russians got a hold of it there's a video tape with Rodger Moore narrating but it was quietly covered up to

  • wtf already getting ads about hbos chernobyl

  • Early feasibility studies at that point in history wasn't really insane, however daft they look in hindsight. What really is insane is Russia trying to develop a nuclear powered cruse missile, the 9M730 Burevestnik. Not something that was looked at in the the '50 or '60s before concluding it was a terrible idea. But actually trying to build a real weapons system right now. Hopefully they are just trying to create something to trade away and agree not too build in order to gain concessions in future arms control talks. But that is probably wishful thinking.

  • If this explodes due to any malfunction, destruction of mammoth scale would be the side effects

  • Russia
    "Psst hey guys, wanna see chernobyl floating acros north pole?"
    *Create 2 nuclear powered ice breaker

    *create nuclear powered plane

  • Love your videos…. @2.20 you mention that the absorption of the neutron causes 'severe vibrations, ripping the Atom apart' … I think this explanation seems a little bit misleading. The word 'Vibrations' implies some sort of thermal motion to me.

  • For bombing other countries like Syria,Iraq and their innocent people?

  • There's no money in nuclear energy.. That's why there's so much nuclear fear mongering..

  • Russia has already created a missile powered by nuclear energy, it can fly for 3+ years

  • We don't live on a planet.

  • "America's Insane Plan for Nuclear Powered Planes Destroying the world,"

  • The Russians mimicked the technology, and flew there own bomber, however, , they dropped the protection shield dreaming the crew to suffer from radiation intoxication, on the other hand USA, intigrated another nuclear fisssion engine into a cruise missile called SLAM, however the dropped of the project and focused on the Tomahawks

  • In case of communist invasion emergency planes can be used as IBMs.

  • And fallout universe pre-war car use nuclear energy….

  • One thing that bugs me is that almost every video related to discussions of Nuclear Power by non-experts ends up showing a bunch of Nuclear Weapons. This leads to reinforcement of uninformed people's subconscious association of mushroom clouds with Nuclear Power, which also reinforces a fear-based response of Nuclear Anything, rather than a fact-based understanding of the differences between Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons. Nuclear Power has nothing to do with mushroom clouds. But it's a cheap and easy way to reinforce that fear-based response in the ignorant.

  • Why would it have lead glass windows in the cockpit? The radiation source is inside the plane. To keep the radiation in?
    Just as silly: shielding the nose and sides of the crew compartment.

  • Only thing I understand.
    E=mc2 😁

  • Could you make video on Compliant mechanism!

  • Why not nuclear powered fighter jets

  • If a terrorist got control of a nuclear plane…

  • surprised you brits haven't repronounced nakasaki and hiroshima.

  • they do exist

  • 1:35 is that a B-32?

  • So the use pure cancer to fuel a plane

  • Source for 4:21 to 4:32?

  • Bring the program back

  • Fallout 4

  • There are nuclear powered vehicles in Fallout games.


  • 3:05 this statement is generally incorrect. It's way more difficult to get uranium to react like a thermonuclear bomb than just generating heat continuously. You require a shit ton of engineering and multiple different planned reactions in succession for a thermonuclear bomb to generate an explosion.

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