"If everything had worked out perfectly, it still would have been
a bum airplane" Charles Wilson, Secretary of Defense
From 1946 through the 1950s, the United States worked to build a nuclear powered airplane. Originally known as NEPA for Nuclear Energy for Propulsion of Aircraft, the program became ANP or Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion. While the concept now seems ludicrous, the context of the era lent credence to the idea.
It was a time when atomic energy was seen as a key to better living with nuclear powered cars on the horizon and electricity too cheap to meter. World War II had demonstrated the importance of both advanced aircraft and the power of the atom, and long range missiles were still a concept on some drawing board. With aircraft as the only means to deliver atomic weapons, the possibility of a long range bomber that could reach the USSR without using foreign bases, and that could stay aloft almost indefinitely, had tremendous significance. However the practicality of such a machine proved to be something altogether different.
While the Air Force—and to a smaller extent the Navy—pushed to "Fly early," Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) scientists understood that there were tremendous technical hurdles to overcome. But with the 1957 launch of Sputnik and reports of Soviet developments in nuclear powered aircraft, fears arose that the United States had fallen behind the USSR in science and technology. Yet, despite this pressure and the influx of huge sums of money, the problems, costs and dangers of nuclear powered flight were too great to overcome. In 1961 the Kennedy administration killed the ANP project. No nuclear powered aircraft were ever built, let alone flown.
|Much of the ANP work was done at what is now the Department of
Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environment Lab (INEEL). INEEL
has been home to much of the country's nuclear reactor expertise, and in
1951 it was the site of the first usable electricity generated by a nuclear
Heat Transfer Reactor Experiments (HTREs) were performed at what became known as the Test Area North (TAN) portion of this 890-square-mile, high-desert facility. The HTRE systems were used to study how the heat from a nuclear reactor could be used to power a turbojet engine.
|The modified jet engines attached to the HTRE reactors would blow out contaminated air and could therefore not be tested near work areas. The entire HTRE system was mounted on double railroad tracks and could be moved from its assembly building out to the test location via a radiation shielded locomotive. The shielded engineer's cab of the locomotive was built with a nearly 4-foot thick observation window.||
|Work on the reactor components was performed in the TAN "Hot shop." Here technicians could assemble and disassemble components using remote manipulators while being protected by 4-foot concrete walls and windows comprised of 24 stacked panes of glass. Following the cancellation of the ANP program, the TAN facilities were adapted for other uses; and in the late 1980s, the TAN Hot Cells were used to examine and repackage core debris from the Three Mile Island reactor.||