Is a nuclear-powered aircraft feasible?

The concept of a nuclear-powered aircraft is both feasible and desirable - so what's the hold up?

Asked by: Terry Pomroy, Croyden

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In theory, nuclear-powered flight is feasible and, in some ways, even desirable. You could fly from London to Sydney without refuelling and all but eliminate greenhouse gas emissions while you’re at it. The main difficulty would be in making airborne nuclear power safe and persuading us, the flying public, that it’s acceptable to sit so close to a reactor.

The biggest headache is how to guarantee that the shield around the reactor stays intact should disaster strike. One solution might be to jettison it in an emergency and use parachutes to ensure that it lands softly.

The whole idea of nuclear-powered flight might seem outlandish, but trials with airborne reactors actually took place in the 1950s. What’s more, one of the leaders of a big UK project investigating alternatives to fossil fuels in aviation believes that it’s a technology worth looking into. And at a workshop in March 2009, a Manchester University group presented the concept of an airborne reactor that vaporises water to drive contra-rotating turbine blades.


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