Fancy a ride on Air Nuke Zealand?

Is that a nuclear reactor nestled behind the cockpit or is it always hotter in business class?

Yep, you read right, The TImes of London is carrying it – nuclear-powered aeroplanes, not some zany, futuristic plan for future air travel, but a throwback to the Cold War, during which billions were spent in the US and the USSR on developing planes that never have to be refueled.

The idea, see, was to have planes that could be constantly circling the earth, ready to drop their catastrophic atomic cargo and capable of keeping the man with his finger on the red button airborne and out of harm’s way for months at a time.

Nukes on a plane? First dreamt up in the 1950s.
Nukes on a plane? First dreamt up in the 1950s.

Now Ian Poll, Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Cranfield university, and head of technology for the British Government-funded Omega project, claims nuclear powered planes will be shuttling people around the world later this century.

As the Times reports:

“The consolation of sitting a few yards from a nuclear reactor will be non-stop flights from London to Australia or New Zealand, because the aircraft will no longer need to land to refuel. The flights will also produce no carbon emissions and therefore make no contribution to global warming.”

That all sounds well and good but do you really want to be strapped to a nuclear reactor for the 20 hour flight to London Heathrow let alone go about your business knowing that flying nukes are criss-crossing the sky overhead?

Professor Poll has thought of that:

“It’s done on nuclear submarines and could be achieved on aircraft by locating the reactors with the engines out on the wings,” he told the Times.

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

And if the worst came to the worst said Poll, and there was a massive, flaming wreck of an air crash like this one in Madrid in August, the fallout would only be scattered over a few square kilometres. No harm done then – unless your nuclear-powered jumbo crash lands in the middle of Tokyo, which by 2025 will have over 36 million inhabitants.

But its amazing nonetheless to consider that back in the 1950s, there were working prototypes of planes run on nuclear power, just as nuclear submarines and battle ships did. And according to New Scientist, the US Government has recently considered the feasibility of running unmanned aircraft on nuclear power so they can roam around spying and taking potshots at targets indefinitely.

Explains New Scientist, of the nuclear process that can power a plane: “The reaction works because a proportion of the hafnium nuclei are “isomers” in which some neutrons and protons sit in higher energy levels than normal. X-ray bombardment makes them release this energy and drop down to a more stable energy level.”

Mind-boggling stuff but one potential method of lowering your carbon footprint later in the century may well be to take a seat on Air Nuke Zealand.