Atomic powered bomber

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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.

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Out in the the desert of the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory at EBR1 National Historic Landmark sit two remnants of cold war aviation research.

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.

The 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.

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