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Link - article by M. Christian and Avi Abrams

The 1950s: "We Add Nuclear Power To Everything."

Fans of the old, but still wonderful, Road Runner cartoons might remember Wile E. Coyote's favorite one-stop-shop for mayhem: The Acme Company. A clever person – not one of us, alas – once said that Acme's slogan should be "We Add Rockets To Everything."

This, in a kind of round-about way, gets us to the 1950s and the near-obsession that certain engineers had back then with a certain power source. To put it another way, their slogan should have been: "We Add Nuclear Power To Everything."

(Chinese vintage poster - complete with a glowing mother and a nuclear baby! It says "Implement the Basic National Policy", i. e. only one child per family)

Atoms in the Air

In all fairness, at first we thought that reactors have proven – for the most part – to be pretty reliable (we are now re-evaluating this again, in view of recent Japanese disaster). Submarines, commercial power plants, and even monstrous icebreakers have proven that nuclear power can be handy if not essential. But back just a few decades ago there were plans, and even a few terrifying prototypes, that would have made the Coyote green with envy – and the rest of us shudder in terror.

(image via)

Both the US and the Soviet Union had engineers with lofty plans to keep bombers in the air indefinitely by using nuclear power. Most folks, with even a very basic knowledge of how reactors work, would think that was a bit (ahem) risky, but what's even scarier is how far along some of those plans got.

(Newsweek cover, 1957 - image via)

Take, for example, the various projects the US undertook. In one case, arguably the most advanced, they made plans to power a Convair B-36 Peacemaker bomber with a reactor. Scary? Sure, but what's even more so is that they actually flew the plane, with an operational reactor, a total of 47 times.

(images via 1, 2)

The shielded reactor:

(image via)

While the reactor never actually powered the plane itself, plus there were huge problems to overcome, it didn’t stop the engineers from drawing up plans for a whole plethora of atomic planes (watch video):

(images credit: Allen B. Ury, 2, 3)

A concept for a nuclear-powered X-6, derived from the Convair B-36 (left) and A Northrop concept for a nuclear-propelled bomber, refueling two other aircraft:

(images via)

The XB-70 Valkyrie, "almost" the World’s First Nuclear Aircraft, more info:

(image via)

More "exciting" concepts of nuclear planes (from the 1950s pages of Popular Mechanics and Mechanix Illustrated magazines):

(images via)

And of course, there was always the "Russian Answer" to American nuclear dreams: in this case it's a modified Tu-85 powered with a reactor called the Tu-119:

(image via)

What was perhaps even crazier than just powered a plane with a nuclear reactor was the idea to use that power source as a weapon. Here, for example, is a beautiful representation of the Douglas 1186 System, which was supposed to use a parasite fighter to guide the warhead to the target – and keep the poor pilot from engine's radiation.

(image credit: X-Planes)

But the craziest of the crazy was the "Flying Crowbar." Not only was the Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (to be formal), aka SLAM (to be short), supposed to be a nuclear bomb deployment system but was also to use a nuclear ramjet drive as a weapon: roasting the ground under it to a Geiger-clicking nightmare while leaving a mushroom-cloud parade of bombs behind it. Shuddering, by the way, would be a perfectly appropriate response. Luckily, the Crowbar never got off the drawing board:

(images via 1, 2)

The Soviets, in a literally sky-high dream, even envisioned a new approach to flying their reactors: use a Zeppelin! Here's a nice little propaganda piece on their ideas for an atomic airship:

(image via)

Atoms on Wheels

Leaving the air to the birds, other engineers had different nuclear dreams: In 1958 the Ford Motor Car Company, not satisfied with the success of the Edsel, put forth the idea of bringing radiation into the American home ... or, at least, the garage, with the Nucleon: a family car with an on-board reactor:

(images via 1, 2)

Well, then, the Year 2012, or never? -

Atoms on Rails

While some engineers played with the highways, a few looked to the rails. Though neither the United States of the Soviet Union got very far with powering a locomotive with a reactor, the USSR at least looked far enough ahead to draw up some plans:

(image via)

Above right image is the American concept of nuclear train: "Of all forms of land transportation, railroads offer the greatest opportunities for the efficient use of nuclear energy". There was no doubt about it in the late 1950s. Here is a German version of the Atomic Locomotive:

(image via)

Okay, the following views are hardly accurate but think how cool it would have been to get this atomic train set for your birthday - click here.

Still other inventive types, determined to find a new use for the atom, scratched their heads and came up with quite a few interesting, if not dubious, ways of playing with nukes – but this time of the explosive variety. Plowshare is one of the most commonly quoted of those operations intended to put a smiley face in a mushroom cloud. A few of their suggested uses include what they called the Pan-Atomic Canal: in other words, using atomic bombs to widen the Panama Canal. They also suggested using nukes for mining operations, though never really solved the problem of dealing with then-radioactive ore.

"Miss Atomic Bomb", 1957 -

(image via)

It's ironic that -- what with the need to urgently replace our finite and global-warming fossil fuels – that many are suggesting a new look at the power of the atom. We can only hope that we, today, can be as imaginative about it as they used to be back in the 1950s ... and a lot more responsible.

Love and Radiation: (Truly, "Till Death Do Us Part"?)





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Blogger Barray said...

We add nuclear to everything mainly because it is such a good energy source. it is very clean except from storaging the nuclear waste.

However, when An reactor explodes because of a tjunami and a earthquake, we say that nuclear power is unsafe. Well, any power plant wouldn't have survived those blows.

For more benefits and disadvantages of nuclear enery.

OpenID warlocketx said...

You've mixed up two concepts that aren't even contemporary.

The SLAM project got as far as a ground-based prototype reactor; google "Project Pluto". It worked. The concept is also applicable to rockets, and there are a goodly number of us who are irritated that irrationality triumphed.

SLAM's exhaust would not have been particularly radioactive, because it used air in a ramjet configuration, and there's nothing in air that gets highly radioactive, or stays radioactive for long. It was supposed to crash into its last target, using radiation as an area-denial weapon.

"Flying crowbar" is a later concept employing non-explosive objects "dropped" from orbit. It would result in what were effectively meteor strikes. The best configuration for the object is a rod, because even if the front burns up on re-entry the back part remains; thus the name.

Anonymous Julian said...

Can I juat say that 'Implement the basic National Policy' is about the least-inspiring rallying cry ever?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot to add the awesome nuclear lighthouses that are all over Russia:

Blogger Jack said...

To amplify what Barray said, the Japanese reactors came through the 9.1 earthquake just fine, and that's more than 10 times stronger than their design criteria. They also came through the tsunami OK. It was the support equipment (backup generators) being destroyed that caused the problem.

Warlocketx - The Smithsonian article on Project Pluto refers to it as "The Flying Crowbar" whether accurate or not.

- Jack

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget spaceships: Check out Project Orion, the nuclear-bomb pulse drive...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're kidding, right? SLAM was specifically designed to be a triple threat out tha box. Mach 6 shockwave at
300 feet over any country it's targeted to. That alone would kill hundreds. No, but wait! There's the 15 1.5 to 2 kiloton MIRV's riding on it's back-popping out the top to drop on any target so chosen as it passes by. Wham!
Then there's the sweet kiss-off. I quote you- "SLAM's exhaust would not have been particularly radioactive, because it used air in a ramjet configuration, and there's nothing in air that gets highly radioactive, or stays radioactive for long".
Are you brain-dead? SLAM was an "open core" reactor, you ferkin dumbass!!!!. That was one of it's point's! It was planned to be flyable for a minimum of three MONTHS over any chosen target with a reactor that had NO SHIELDING AT ALL, spewing little chunks of the core all the way, everywhere it went.
Let me reiterate- three months, at mach 6, spewing transuranics with a half-life of 1200 years all the way-plus popping out airdrop nukes wherever it felt like it!
One of the reasons it never got off the ground was they never could figure out how to test it safely, or figure out how to dispose of the rig after it was finished, other than crashing it into the deep Pacific.......
You're the one who's getting programs mixed up- NERVA is the powerplant you're thinking of- which was never ever meant to be used in atmo. That was meant to be a thruster for outer system propulsion. The program you speak of is "Rods from God", which have no powerplant at all, they are just kinetic energy weapons.
SLAM was so insidious that even the designers didn't want to finish it, yet yur dumbbass thinks it was ok.....last point; they were contemporary.Both programs were started by 1957. "Rod's" didn't come along until the mid 70's. Fact-check, brutha

Anonymous wash board said...

Definitely some fascinating projects, a little scary that there were nuclear reactors flying around in the sky though. Loved this post.

Blogger Richard L.A. Schaeferr said...

Forty or fifty years ago, I think it was the magazine Atlantic Monthly that ran an article arguing that scientists felt so guilty about inventing the Atom Bomb that they were trying desperately and at times irrationally to find uses of atomic power that would redeem or make up for or atone for what they had done. Regarding fear of dirt or guilt, some argue that a psychological and not necessarily rational attractive of solar power has been that it is so "clean" as compared to the "dirty" (in various ways) other sources of energy. It's almost as if some people want a source of energy as abstract and distant and unearthly as possible.

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

We did write about Nuclear Spaceships: Project Orion - check out http://tinyurl.com/3s8knj

Blogger Kristopher said...

Two of the test reactors for the US nuclear powered bomber program are on display outside of the public museum at the Idaho National Labs near Arco ID:


Blogger asdwwweer said...

1955 - communistic Czechoslovakia - atomic flying harvester


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