Thursday, September 15, 2005

Nothing new about floating nuclear reactors

catallaxy � Blog Archive � Nothing new about floating nuclear reactors

Like many commentators Miranda Darling is alarmed by Russian plans to export floating nuclear power plants to the third world. She notes that these floating reactors could be "vulnerable to threats from accidents caused by wave activity, and from terrorist or pirate attacks." I can’t help wondering how the US Army planned to deal with these threats when it towed a floating nuclear reactor to the Panama Canal.

According to an article in the Army Logistician the the US Army operated a floating nuclear reactor aboard the barge Sturgis. The reactor provided electric power to the Panama Canal from 1968 to 1976. On the US Army Corps of Engineers web site Engineer Update Richard Wright writes that the army’s MH-1A mobile reactor was:

mounted inside the Sturgis, a converted World War II Liberty Ship. The reactor was built in 1966 and went critical in early 1967. The Sturgis, a 45-megawatt power plant, was first harbored at Fort Belvoir for operational testing and training. It was then towed to the Panama Canal Zone where it generated electrical power from 1968 through 1976. The MH-1 was shut down in 1976 and towed to the James River Fleet.

While the Sturgis and its nuclear reactor are no longer floating in Gatun Lake, nuclear reactors remain afloat aboard aircraft carriers, submarines, cruisers and icebreakers. Russia currently operates seven nuclear powered icebreakers based near Murmansk. According to a recent paper by F. N. von Hippel (pdf) the eleven reactors aboard these ships use highly enriched uranium (HEU). According to von Hippel the Russians plan to adapt the KLT-40 reactor used in these icebreakers for use with low enriched uranium (LEU). These reactors could then be used on the floating power plants Russia plans to export.

If floating nuclear reactors make you nervous you will be relieved to know that the US Air Force is no longer putting nuclear reactors aboard aircraft. According to the Brookings Institute:

Between 1946 and 1961, the Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission spent more than $7 billion trying to develop a nuclear-powered aircraft. Although no airplane ever flew under nuclear power, the Air Force converted this B-36 bomber, known as the Nuclear Test Aircraft, to carry an operating three-megawatt air-cooled reactor to assess operational problems (it made 47 flights over Texas and New Mexico between July 1955 and March 1957).

The US military’s Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Project eventually died. Engineers never managed to solve the problems involved in creating a powerful but light weight reactor. Intercontinental ballistic missiles made the nuclear powered bomber obsolete before it even took the air.


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