Nuclear drones

You already knew that submarines can be propelled by a nuclear power plant and possibly also that on Mars a car rides with plutonium as fuel. But it’s likely news that experiments are going on  with airplanes that use uranium or other nuclear material to stay airborne. A flying nuclear power plant, but unmanned, so it is essentially a drone. It is a secretive project, but it is clear that at least one of these drones has taken to the air. Say the engineers: "the technical goals for the project were accomplished", but: "it was disappointing to all, that the political realities would not allow use of the results”. In other words: technically it is doable, but the society is not ready for this yet. Not really?

In the world of science, industry, the military, the judiciary, the arts, media, agriculture and so on the use of drones has exploded in the past decade. However, the range (the "hang time) of the aircraft is limited,  the amount of available electricity (for sensors, transmitters and other equipment) is also limited and so is the payload, the" load " that the drones can bring somewhere (either the freight or the equipment on board).

The drones ordinary people can buy are able to carry up to 20 kilos and have a hang time of up to to half an hour. In the army drones are used that have a hang time of 7 days  and can fly thousands of kilometers (using regular fuel). That is however still not enough and that is where the nuclear drone comes in according to the Israeli physicist Dr. Yehoshua Socol.

Nuclear airplanes have a history. In the fifties of the last century they were tried, but it was no success. The radiation was very severe and in order to protect the pilots against it an enormous shield was necessary, which made the plane to heavy to fly. Unmanned airplanes, drones don’t have this problem  so the available energy can be fully used for flying. Since 1990 the US military experimented therefore with this Nuclear Powered UAVs. They calculated that they would be able to reach a height of 23 kilometers, could carry 2000 kilograms and could maintain that for 6 months to a year. In 2012 the Sandia Laboratory (a major laboratory of the US state) together with the company Northrop Grumman published a summary of a further secret report (‘Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) Ultra Persistence Research’) that convinced Dr Socol that it was about a nuclear drone (even though the word ‘nuclear’ wasn’t used in the summary). Technical details about the plane are not given, but dr Socol is confident to make educated guesses about them. Socol doesn’t say it, but we assume that the whole secrecy of the project is dictated by the fear for antinuclear mass hysteria. For an experiment with a drone on regular fuel nu such secrecy would be necessary.

But will there ne an anti nuclear mass hysteria when these nuclear drones are developed further?
Author Socol is optimistic. He points out to a raging debate in the scientific community about the standards to protect against radiation, which are much more severe than is required by science. He thinks the political climate with regard to radiation dangers is changing and therefore he dares to argue for the development  of nuclear drones. In terms of fuel economy they certainly seem very attractive: one kilogram of nuclear material (uranium, plutonium, thorium, americium) just produces as much energy as 2,000 tons of fuel. To compare: that 11 full fuel tanks for a Boeing 747. Socol then proceeds to speculate how such a drone could look. According to him, it could be both a jet or a propeller-driven airplane or airship. He expects that it could be built for $ 5 million,  probably a little more.

But most questions are of course raised about the safety of such a device. The nuclear drones will produce an enormous amount of radiation, Socol doesn’t deny it, but is convinced the dangers can be managed.

In operation the drone will produce two types of radiation: neutron and gamma radiation. The neutron radiation disappears  as soon as you turn off the reactor, but the gamma radiation (of the fuel) remains and still creates a lethal environment.  So robots are necessary to remove the power plant from the drone and bring to to a safe isolated placed. That still leaves one problem:  the neutron radiation may be stopped, but while active it has made the non nuclear metals that the drone is made off partly radioactive themselves. These problems can be solved by choosing the right materials (some metals become highly radioactive upon neutron irradiation, others much less) and by using protective gear. Socol is convinced that this way it will be no problem to stay within the government radiation protection norms (which he also deems way to stringent).

But what if such a drone crashes? Socol has but one example of something similar and that was the accident in 1966 in Spain (Palomares) where in a B52-plane crash two atomic bombs fell to the ground. The (non-nuclear!) explosives they contained went off and the plutonium was  scattered over two square kilometers. There was a cleanup, but some of the material was simply dumped in the area.  In the beginning of the 21st century it was shown that contaminatiation was still considerable. However, no medical consequences are reported. The nuclear drones emphasizes Socol do not contain explosives.

The ‘proliferation’-argument,  that the nuclear material in drones could be used to make atombombs does not apply anymore according to Socol. Thanks to new technology it is now possible to make nuclear fuel material that is unsuitable for  that purpose.

Socol clearly is enthusiastic. He considers the nuclear drone is a good alternative for the now common and expensive satellites. Because the drones will operate at a lower level than the satellites, they can take better pictures, send data faster and make shorter trips around the earth. A job that now requires multiple satellites can now be carried out by one drone. Drones can also be commanded back to the reath for repair or other goals. Socol: NP-UAV’s enable months long missions for Earth and space science, exploration of natural resources, telecoms and probably more and pleas for further development.

Source: Socol, Y. (2014) 'Nuclear-powered unmanned aerial vehicles for science, industry and telecommunications, "Int. J. Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp.77-82.



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