American scientists have drawn up plans for a new generation of nuclear-powered drones capable of flying over remote regions of the world for months on end without refuelling, The Guardianreports today.
A (conventionally powered) Global Hawk drone. Critics of of ‘nuclear drone’ program focused on the implications of an armed nuclear drone that could spy relentlessly for months over huge areas and what would happen if a ‘flying nuclear power plant’ crashed. (Photo: US Air Force)The plans for the nuclear-powered drone were obtained last week by the Federation of American Scientists (FADS), gleaned from a project summary (pdf) prepared by Sandia National Laboratories, agovernment-owned/contractor operated(GOCO) research and development facility operated by Lockheed Martin. Also involved in the project was the private defense corporation, Northrup Gruman.
Though the program has currently been put on hold, the regret from officials at Sandia seemd to focus on the determination that “political realities” made continuation of the program untenable. The reaction from critics of the program, on the other hand, focused on the implications of an armed nuclear drone that could spy relentlessly for months over huge areas and what would happen if a ‘flying nuclear power plant’ crashed.
The blueprints for the new drones, which have been developed by Sandia National Laboratories – the US government’s principal nuclear research and development agency – and defence contractor Northrop Grumman, were designed to increase flying time “from days to months” while making more power available for operating equipment, according to a project summary published by Sandia.
“It’s pretty terrifying prospect,” said Chris Coles of Drone Wars UK, which campaigns against the increasing use of drones for both military and civilian purposes. “Drones are much less safe than other aircraft and tend to crash a lot. There is a major push by this industry to increase the use of drones and both the public and government are struggling to keep up with the implications.”
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The highly sensitive research into what is termed “ultra-persistence technologies” set out to solve three problems associated with drones: insufficient “hang time” over a potential target; lack of power for running sophisticated surveillance and weapons systems; and lack of communications capacity.
The Sandia-Northrop Grumman team looked at numerous different power systems for large- and medium-sized drones before settling on a nuclear solution. Northrop Grumman is known to have patented a drone equipped with a helium-cooled nuclear reactor as long ago as 1986, and has previously worked on nuclear projects with the US air force research laboratory. Designs for nuclear-powered aircraft are known to go back as far as the 1950s.
So what happened? “It was disappointing to all that the political realities would not allow use of the results,” Sandia laments. The lab gave up on nuclear drones due to political pressures, perceived or otherwise. “No near-term benefit to industry or the taxpayer will be encountered as a result of these studies.”
Drones crash. Compared to conventional airplanes, they crash a lot. Rough weather, communications errors, software glitches—sometimes we don’t even know what brings down a drone. But they go down, and because there’s no human inside, it’s never considered much of a loss. They’re (relatively) cheap! They’re (relatively) disposable! But with nuclear fuel inside, they’d be categorically dangerous. Even across bombed out Afghanistan, a Predator crash with nuclear consequences would be a diplomatic crisis. Suddenly, you don’t just have debris—you have a contamination zone. That wouldn’t go over well in downtown Islamabad.
And then there’s the inexorable reality of drones flying above the U.S. — above our homes. Although the propulsion tech Sandia seemed so keen on was ostensibly meant for military craft, the Homeland Security fantasy of “ultra-persistent” can’t be ignored. Domestic spies would drool and throb over this ever-watching eye as much as the Air Force or CIA.
Government scientists find it “disappointing” that “current political conditions will not allow use” of a nuclear-powered drone that can fly around the Earth for months. We do not. Why? Because the mere thought of a nuclear reactor flying around the heavens, snapping pictures of villages and possible firing rockets at them is absolutely horrifying, that’s why. Set aside the fear of a nuclear reactor crashing in your yard — these would be drones that would not run out of power. […]
There are really two ways of reacting to this news. One, good for the government scientists for deciding not to build a flying, unmanned nuclear power plant. (Bear in mind that we don’t actually know if they’ve continued work on the project since last June.) Two, let’s make this a teaching moment. Last December when CIA lost a drone over Iran was a teaching moment, too. Just imagine if it had an American-made nuclear reactor inside of it.