The US Air Force is examining the feasibility of a nuclear-powered version of an unmanned aircraft. The USAF hopes that such a vehicle will be able to "loiter" in the air for months without refuelling, striking at will when a target comes into its sights.
But the idea is bound to raise serious concerns about the wisdom of flying radioactive material in a combat aircraft. If shot down, for instance, would an anti-aircraft gunner in effect be detonating a dirty bomb? [...]
Instead of a conventional fission reactor, it is focusing on a type of power generator called a quantum nucleonic reactor. This obtains energy by using X-rays to encourage particles in the nuclei of radioactive hafnium-178 to jump down several energy levels, liberating energy in the form of gamma rays. A nuclear UAV would generate thrust by using the energy of these gamma rays to produce a jet of heated air. [...]
The AFRL says the quantum nucleonic reactor is considered safer than a fission one because the reaction is very tightly controlled. "It's radioactive, but as soon as you take away the X-ray power source its gamma ray production is reduced dramatically, so it's not as dangerous [as when it's active]," says Hamilton. [...]
Nuclear-powered drone aircraft on drawing board
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