Atomic powered bomber


the answer to “Shades of Mad Max.”

The image use here was actual cropped from a larger photo of HTRE-2, reproduced below

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Heat Transfer Reactor No.1 (HTRE-1 or “Heater One”) went to full power in January 1956 and demonstrated the principle of nuclear-powered turbojet engines.  It was converted to HTRE-2 (“Heater Two”) and became the world’s largest materials teat reactor.  HTRE-2 subjected test fuels to neutron flux and 2800°F temperatures, advancing the state-of-art for materials.

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HTRE-3 or “Heater Three” was built more like an aircraft with the reactor, engine, shielding, and heat transfer systems in a horizontal configuration.  Eventually the reactor could start and run two turbojet engines at a time.  “The engine itself, including the reactor, was less than ten feet long.  What you see is the framework that was needed to make sure the reactor did not take off across the desert.  But the framework also contained many instruments to measure the performance of the reactor and jet engine.” Jay Kurze, Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion physicist and engineer.

These giant metal structures are test stands containing atomic jet engines.  They are remnants of a joint US Air Force and Atomic Energy Commission program to build a nuclear powered airplane.

When the program began in the early 1950s, no one knew for sure whether a nuclear reactor could power an airplane engine.  Engineers designed a series of three Heat Transfer Reactor Experiments to prove the principle. 

The experiments took place on these test stands. HTRE-1 was later converted to HTRE-2.

The next step would have been tests using an actual aircraft.  But many leading scientist and officials opposed it.


 “Heater 3” components included reactor shield, single chemical combustor mounted behind the reactor shield assembly, two modified J-47 turbojet engines and interconnecting ducting.

On March 28, 1961, President John F. Kennedy cancelled the entire nuclear bomber program “effective immediately.” The development of intercontinental ballistic missiles had made the bomber obsolete before it was developed and reports that the Soviets had an operating nuclear aircraft proved to be false.

2010 07 24 a 069edThe atom powered bomber was expensive, impractical, and obsolete almost before it was conceived.  Missiles and conventional jet bombers would soon be able to do the same job – long-distance delivery of nuclear weapons – more cheap;y and efficiently.  Despite the fact the plane was never built, the research done advanced the state-of-the-art in many respects.  For example, the experiments tested the behavior of metals and materials at very high levels.

“Most of today’s high temperature metals and materials technology we learned from the work on aircraft engines.” Richard Meservey, Nuclear physicist.

Heater 1 / 2 and Heater 3 are on display at the EBR1 National Historic Landmark east of Arco, Idaho at the Idaho National Laboratory.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rummuser Mar 23, 2014

    Just imagine! That innocuous looking thing capable of such power!
    Rummuser recently posted…Gran Torino.My Profile

    • Mike Mar 24, 2014

      And think of the range, too. No need to refuel — it would have been able to stay aloft for very extended periods.

  • Don Eggleston Mar 24, 2014

    Mike: when you were there was the locomotive they used to move experiments at TAN ( Test Area North) there?

    • Mike Mar 24, 2014

      I did a search on it just now and I would have to say no. I would have noticed it if it had been there. That visit was actually in July 2010. Karen would have been bored stiff, so she stayed in Arco while I went out to EBR1 and did the self-guided tour. When I was stationed there as staff, we moved out to Arco several months after we got back to Idaho.
      Mike recently posted…Risky.My Profile

  • Hilary Mar 24, 2014

    Hi Mike – war is dreadful, but the scientists discover so much … I just hope we can keep things under control now in the 21st century, with so much knowledge all around the world.

    Atomic powered bomber .. well I’d have never guessed .. cheers Hilary
    Hilary recently posted…Aspects of British Coasts: 2014 A – Z …My Profile

    • Mike Mar 24, 2014

      I had heard about it back in the 70s when I was stationed in Idaho. The nuclear airplane development site was north of the Navy’s nuclear prototype facilities where I worked.

  • Alan G Mar 24, 2014

    Uh… I take it that this means I didn’t win? 🙂

    Interesting, I don’t recall ever hearing anything about this technology myself. Despite the ‘powers-to-be’ deciding against pursuing the technology as relates to aircraft, surely they are still pursuing the technology as would relate to spacecraft and space travel?
    Alan G recently posted…The Infamous Georgia Hedge Fly….My Profile

    • Mike Mar 24, 2014

      I haven’t really looked into it, but supposedly the Russians are developing one for more rapid travel within the solar system, with the actual space vessel final assembly in space. You wouldn’t want a nuclear rocket taking off from ground level.

  • Cheerful Monk Mar 24, 2014

    I certainly would never have guessed what it was.
    Cheerful Monk recently posted…Fearless GrouseMy Profile

    • Mike Mar 24, 2014

      I didn’t know what they were from the parking lot, though I had heard about the program. They are inside locked fencing, posted with radiation protection signs stating that general employee radiological training or radiological worker I or II is required for unescorted access.

  • Donald Eggleston Mar 26, 2014

    If you are interested in the nuclear rocket do a search on NERVA research project.

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