Military-Grade Awesome

Drunk, Dirty Ramming Nukes

Project Pluto

This week, Alex Kierstein and I had a lot of fun bringing you nuclear-fueled oddities from a time before we learned to fear nuclear power. We’re not done, though. Thanks to our awesome commenters, we keep getting more fodder for our obsession with things powered by nukes that are not cities or ships. Because of a tip from Discontinuuity, I invite you sit back and enjoy a tale about a nuclear-powered ramjet and a giant missile.

Project Pluto had nothing to do with cartoon dogs or former planets, though had it been completed the Earth could be a former planet. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was becoming obvious that putting a nuclear reactor on a bomber wasn’t the way to go. What, then, are we to do with all these nuclear scientists? Why not a ramjet that uses a nuclear reactor?! Hell. Yes.

You’ve heard us talk about dirty cycle engines. Basically, these are engines that use the heat of fission from the nuclear reactor to expand air rather than the heat of combustion from jet fuel. All you need is love heat to make engines work, including ramjets. In a ramjet, the air entering the jet is flowing at a high enough rate that it can be compressed in the engine nozzle rather than using a compressor as is done in a turbojet. However, the air must still be heated so it can expand and become pressurized to the point that it will provide thrust.

In 1961 and 1964, the United States Air Force and Department of Energy tested nuclear powered ramjets. Their idea was to use these ramjets in Supersonic Low Altitude Missiles (SLAM). The SLAM, powered by a small nuclear reactor code-named Tory, would be launched and fly around for months on end until it was needed. In the concept drawings, it would hold a payload of nuclear weapons and could fly several thousand miles to a target site. It was, essentially, an unmanned nuclear-powered bomber with supersonic capabilities.

In order to make a nuclear reactor that could fit in a missile, the boundaries of metallurgy and technology had to be stretched. The Tory reactor burned at 2,500 deg. Farenheit. This was well above the melting point of the then-new exotic metals being developed for rocketry. Something else had to be developed. Designers finally settled on ceramic for the fuel rods and chose the Coors Porcelain Company (which also had a small brewery) to provide the pencil-sized rods.

Two engines were tested — Tory IIA and Tory IIC (pictured) — and showed great promise. Producing about 35,000 lb of thrust, these were probably the most powerful jet engines of their time by far. The SLAM missile was looking like it would be a reality, and a nuke-jet would finally be built.

Then someone in the Pentagon got their panties in a bunch. It was decided that if this program continued, it would provoke the Soviet Union into building something similar. Since we didn’t have a way to defend against it that would be bad. One false move and nuclear-powered supersonic death would rain down from the skies. Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for the lemurs, this never happened.

[Image Credits: Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s Flickr, Extraprolific Art]

  • discontinuuity

    I live only a few blocks from the Coors Porcelain factory (now called CoorsTek) in Golden, CO. It's a bit mysterious, sort of like Willy Wonka's factory, since there are always whirrs and clanks emanating from it, along with the smells of strange organic solvents. Maybe when I graduate I can get a job there.

    Another benefit of living in Golden is that small brewery, which gives free samples 5 days a week (including Blue Moon and Killian's). Or there's always the second largest brewery in Golden:

  • Nuclear beer rockets.


  • name_too_long

    While not related to this application of nuclear technology, my grandfather was a maintenance tech at quite possibly the worlds largest, most complex, and dangerous steam-cooker… Hanford.

    He would bring fresh Kittitas sweet-corn in to the Operations Engineers who would use steam coming off the reactor's boiler to cook it in a mater of seconds.

    I was never made aware of how the process developed but eventually they had come up with a special bucket, with holes cut in it, and tables with the appropriate time to leave the vent open to properly cook a given number of ears of corn. They'd put the corn in the bucket, put the bucket next to a steam vent valve, consult the cooking table, and open the vent for the specified time.

    • TechieInHell

      I will never look at my microwave the same way now when I decide to "nuke" my leftovers.

  • highmileage_v1

    Some of the ideas born during the cold war are absolutely bonkers, yet really cool. The nuclear oddities are the best. Thank god they weren't made operational. The possibility of Project Pluto screaming overhead, low level, at Mach 3 irradiating everything in its path, is awesome, yet terrifying. Project Orion is another awesome yet scary concept. 10,000 ton nuclear powered spacecraft anybody? Apparently President Kennedy was briefed on Orion and had a conniption because of the fallout implications.

    • tonyola

      There was also the wonderful idea of using nukes for earthwork and excavation. The one time the idea was tested (1962), it exposed 7% of the US population to fallout.

      • Number_Six

        The US military sold a nuke to a civilian organization so they could extract oil from the Alberta oil sands with it. They cleared out a landing strip somewhere north of Dearthair's home and dug a giant hole to drop the nuke into. Thankfully someone caught on to the fact that this might not have been such a good idea after all.

        • tonyola

          I know using nukes to free up oil was talked about in the 1950s, but I can't believe the US military actually sold one of its nukes to a civilian agency, especially during the Cold War. Corroboration, please?

          • Number_Six

            It's discussed in William Marsden's Stupid to the Last Drop, which I read last year. Richfield Oil of California was sold the nine kiloton bomb for $350,000 in the early '60s. When the Canadian gov't eventually turned it down, they had a go at Alaska. Another mention of it here:

          • tonyola

            Wow. Thanks for the info.

          • discontinuuity

            The US government used nuclear bombs for natural gas fracing in western Colorado. It worked, but the gas was too radioactive to use.

        • Deartháir

          Stupid, stupid, stupid people.

          If you're going to use a nuke on any spot in Alberta, clearly it should be Calgary.

      • highmileage_v1

        You're shaking a memory loose! I think the Soviets actually diverted a river for irrigation purposes sometime in the '60s. Maybe in Kazakhstan? There were horrific problems with birth defects downwind of the surface detonations. The defects continue to occur today.

    • ptschett

      I'm of the opinion we should build Orion, but in orbit or on the moon. It's still one of the better rocket engine concepts for manned exploration of the solar system, and we need every advantage we can get over the lemurs.

      • highmileage_v1

        I'm with you on that. It would cut the transit time to Mars significantly if you could maintain acceleration until the turnover point. There are issues that were a show stopper in the '60's and are still valid. Orbiting a vehicle with a couple thousand fission devices would probably upset a few folks. Also, apparently, the earths magnetosphere will capture the radioactive byproducts of Orion and slowly pull them into the atmosphere.

  • This started the fart-can trend.

  • The Professor

    The SLAM in project Pluto was also known as "the flying crowbar", a term that I just love. The name stems from the durability of the SLAM, which one engineer described as "durable as a bucket of rocks".

    Also, in the science fiction novel "Footfall" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, a project Orion-based spacecraft launched from Seattle was used to fight an alien invasion. It's a good read.