The Atlantic

Why There Are No Nuclear Airplanes

Strategists considered sacrificing older pilots to patrol the skies in flying reactors. An Object Lesson.
Source: Christopher Furlong / Getty

The U.S. Navy recently asked Congress for $139 billion to update its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Unlike “conventional” submarines, which need to surface frequently, nuclear submarines can cruise below the sea at high speeds for decades without ever needing to refuel. Defense planners expect that the new submarines will run on one fueling for the entirety of deployment—up to a half century.

[Read: What it felt like to test the first submarine nuclear reactor]

The advantages of nuclear submarines over their conventional cousins raise a question about another component of the military arsenal: Why don’t airplanes run on nuclear power?

The reasons are many. Making a nuclear reactor flightworthy is difficult. Shielding it from spewing dangerous radiation into the bodies of its crew might be impossible. During the Cold War, when the threat of

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