The 1950s and 1960s were the United States’ and Soviet Union’s nuclear heyday. Unlocking the power of the atom was supposed to usher in a new era in human achievement. In many ways, it did—harnessing nuclear power offered nearly unlimited energy to countries in the exclusive nuclear club.
But could the nuclear age transform aviation as well? The United States and USSR certainly thought so. Meet the Tu-95LAL and the Convair NB-36H— both of which carried onboard nuclear reactors.
Unlimited Range, Limited Exposure
In the early days of the Cold War before ICBMs and nuclear-powered submarines, American and Soviet nuclear preparedness was extremely high. Both countries had nuclear-armed bombers in the sky around the clock, waiting to deliver their payloads on Moscow and Washington. Keeping bombers constantly in-air required lots of support infrastructure and forward planning—and lots of refueling, which limited bomber’s range and endurance.
Aircraft powered by nuclear reactors could, in theory, remain in the sky for weeks or possibly months without needing to refuel. Their only limitations would be food, water, and pilot endurance. The idea was seemingly straightforward: use existing aircraft designs and modify them to be powered not by conventional means, but by nuclear power.
American and Soviet engineers faced several complex design problems. First, how exactly would nuclear propulsion work? Surprisingly similar to any other kind of aircraft. Of crucial importance would be the massive amount of thermal energy a nuclear reactor creates.
First, a simplified explanation of jet engines: during normal flight, air enters a jet engine, where it is compressed, injected with fuel, and ignited. This creates a controlled explosion that is forced rearward, creating thrust and pushing the aircraft forward.