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Nuclear-powered aircraft may sound like a concept from Thunderbirds, but they will be transporting millions of passengers around the world later this century, the leader of a Government-funded project to reduce environmental damage from aviation believes.

 The consolation of sitting a few yards from a nuclear reactor will be non-stop flights from London to Australia or New Zealand, because the aircraft will no longer need to land to refuel.

The flights will also produce no carbon emissions and therefore make no contribution to global warming. Ian Poll, Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Cranfield university, and head of technology for the Government-funded Omega project, is calling for a big research programme to help the aviation industry convert from fossil fuels to nuclear energy.

In a lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society tonight, Professor Poll will say that experiments conducted during the Cold War have already demonstrated that there are no insurmountable obstacles to developing a nuclear-powered aircraft. The United States and the Soviet Union both began developing nuclear-powered bombers in the 1950s. The idea was that these bombers would remain airborne, within striking distance of their targets, for very long periods.

The United States tested a nuclear-powered jet engine on the ground and also carried out flight tests with a nuclear reactor on board a B-36 jet with a lead-lined cockpit over West Texas and Southern New Mexico. The reactor “ran hot” during the flights but the engines were powered by kerosene.

The purpose of the flights was to prove that the crew could be safely shielded from the reactor. Each flight was accompanied by an aircraft packed with marines ready to respond to a crash by parachuting down and securing the area. The test programmes were abandoned in the early 1960s when the superpowers decided that intercontinental ballistic missiles made nuclear-powered planes redundant. In an interview with The Times, Professor Poll said: “We need to be looking for a solution to aviation emissions which will allow flying to continue in perpetuity with zero impact on the environment. “We need a design which is not kerosene-powered, and I think nuclear-powered aeroplanes are the answer beyond 2050.

The idea was proved 50 years ago, but I accept it would take about 30 years to persuade the public of the need to fly on them.” Professor Poll said the big challenge would be to demonstrate that passengers and crew could be safely shielded from the reactors. “It's done on nuclear submarines and could be achieved on aircraft by locating the reactors with the engines out on the wings,” he said. “The risk of reactors cracking open in a crash could be reduced by jettisoning them before impact and bringing them down with parachutes.”

He said that, in the worst-case scenario, if the armour plating around the reactor was pierced there would be a risk of radioactive contamination over a few square miles. “If we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of air travel without hindrance from environmental concerns, we need to explore nuclear power. If aviation remains wedded to fossil fuels, it will run into serious trouble,” he said. “Unfortunately, nuclear power has been demonised but it has the potential to be very beneficial to mankind.”

Professor Poll said an alternative to carrying nuclear reactors on aircraft would be to develop aircraft fuelled by hydrogen extracted from sea water by nuclear power stations. However, he said that while hydrogen could be suitable for ground-based transport, its energy density was much lower than kerosene and it would be very difficult to design a long-range passenger aircraft capable of carrying enough of the fuel.

Rob Coppinger, technical editor of Flight International magazine, said it was more likely that nuclear reactors would be installed on unmanned air vehicles, used for reconnaissance or in combat, because there would be less need for heavy shielding than on a passenger plane. Professor Poll will also present research tonight into measures to improve the efficiency over the next decade of short-haul aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320. He will say that the replacements for these aircraft are likely to fly more slowly, adding about 10 minutes to a typical flight within Europe. They are also likely to have open-rotor engines, which would use 20 per cent less fuel but could be much noisier than existing jet engines.

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