Did the mysterious exploding atomic toaster in space give you the willies (and make you look cross-wise at your nearest lemur)? Well grab your lead vest and a dosimeter – the damn Commies put a nuclear reactor into a Tupolev bomber back in the swinging ’60s! Turn out the lights and put a flashlight under your monitor’s chin and read on for this chilling tale of Cold War insanity.
The year is 1955. Stalin’s been dead for two years, and the Soviets are looking for ways to project power so as to intimidate the West, as well as to keep up with emerging developments in push-button solutions for rendering the entire Earth uninhabitable. Quite possibly with a glance askew at the Convair X-6, that engineerd™ will be writing about shortly, the Soviets decreed that a nuclear-powered bomber development program should begin post-haste. Tupolev was given the task of satisfying this complex and technically daunting task, which they assumed would take 20 years. To gain some experimental data, Tupolev decided to get a reactor flying pronto.
They turned to a preexisting Tupolev bomber, the awsome Tu-95 “Bear” – which deserves its own piece, but humor me for a second in pointing out its highlights: not only is it the fastest turboprop ever and the noisiest military plane extant, it’s still serving the Russian Federation and probably will until 2040 or so. Yeah, so not a bad starting point, eh? Anyways, the Bear was modified by Tupolev into the Tu-119 (NATO codename “Atomic Pirogi” … ok, I made that up), which housed reactor in the bomb bay. It was a little tall, so the 119 had a “power bulge” on the dorsal part of the fuselage. In addition, the airframe had to carry a massive amount of radiation shielding and reactor cooling apparatus, so large amounts of steel plating and smaller amounts of liquid sodium, beryllium oxide, cadmium, and paraffin wax were carried. Hard numbers are understandably vague, but it’s said the crew could safely stay in the aircraft for 48 hours, or if their survival wasn’t an issue, as long as they could until they were cooked to a crisp. Yikes!
But here’s where things get cool: the Tu-95 already utilized the Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprop engines turning contra-rotating props, the most powerful turboprop engines ever created. At 15,000 rated HP in the late versions, the next most powerful motor isn’t even close. But for the Tu-119, the inboard two NK-12s were replaced with NK-14s, which were experimental “dirty-cycle” engines with minimal radiation shielding, powered directly by the reactor. Cross-referencing this with information on the American nuclear bomber program, it seems that a nuclear jet engine uses reactor heat via a heat exchanger to expand incoming air, rather than burning a hydrocarbon fuel to achieve the same effect. Nifty! No word on the power output of either the Tu-119′s reactor or NK-14 motor, but let’s assume it was somewhere between “wow” and “holy crap!” Also, “dirty-cycle” jet engines seem both ridiculously amazing and horribly, horribly irresponsible.
The Tu-119 flew 34 times in 1961 before some intensely sane and rational person in the ministry decided it was a horrible idea. And also ICBMs proved to be a much cheaper, easier, and more efficient way to blow up American cities anyhow. So the program was cancelled and Soviet bomber pilots were all the less irradiated for the decision. Now you know, and knowing’s half the battle (that was thankfully never fought!).