Atomic Awesome

Nuclear Rails

Nuclear power has been looked at for planes and automobiles, but what about the third mode of transportation — trains? Unsurprisingly, it was considered both in the US and the Soviet Union.

Project X-12 was a 1954 plan by Professor Lyle B. Borst and his colleagues at the University of Utah to build a nuclear-powered train. Babcock and Wilcox, one of the country’s premier nuclear reactor designer/builders, helped to develop the concept in secret. Project X-12 would have created a steam engine using a small nuclear reactor. Rather than the typical control rods, a more efficient liquid uranium oxide dissolved in sulphuric acid mix would be used. With only 14 kg needed to fuel the train for up to 4 months, and with more even neutron flux this was decided to be the way to go. Plus, the train could be refueled without having to open the reactor core. It would consist of two cars: a 38 meter long locomotive with the reactor, steam turbine, and generator and a 20 meter long tender car with the water storage and cooling radiators. It would make 7,000 hp and would have cost $1.2 million in 1954 dollars. Even with the high cost, the project was shown interest by several major manufacturers.

In 1956, the Soviet Ministry of Transport proposed a nuclear-powered train that would serve the desolate areas of the country like Siberia and the deserts to the south. The Soviet idea was much like the American one, however its nuclear generator was to be much larger, necessitating a new rail gage up to 3 times wider than the 1520 mm standard gage in Russia. Like the American project, it would have been a nuclear-steam-generator arrangement. This train would have a more conventional reactor using fuel rods that would require changing on a more sparse basis. Information on it is sparse, but what I gather is it would have been for both luxury passenger travel and freight.

So, why did neither of these trains ever get built? Both would be tremendously heavy. The US train would require 200 tons of lead shielding around the reactor and fuel tanks. Compared to the new diesel-electric trains of the time, the shielding would weigh as much as one locomotive. The Soviet train would use lead and concrete, which would also make it very heavy. The heavier the locomotive, the less capacity for pulling passengers and, more importantly, freight it would have. Furthermore, the size of the trains was enormous compared to the new trains coming online. Finally, the issue of safety had to be raised. Considering the number of train accidents and the fact that trains don’t travel across unpopulated oceans or fly at altitudes that would help diminish any radiation, the prospect of a nuclear-powered train getting into an accident at 60 mph was daunting.

While it seems a pretty straightforward evolution of the steam train, the nuclear-powered train has never been able to overcome the obstacles to become a reality.

Further Reading:
Throw ATOM in the furnace!: NUCLEAR LOCOMOTIVES by Oleg Makarov, Popular Mechanics Russia, November 2008

Project X-12: Borst’s Imaginary Nuclear Locomotive by Peter Melzer, Peter Review Products and Procedures, March 19, 2012

[Image Credit: Public Domain]

  • All aboard the AtoMTRAK. Next stop Five Mile Island!

    • It's the bomb!

    • CaptianNemo2001

      It is now a candidate for the "Dumbest stuff on wheels" show.

      • If it weren't for the safety issue and all the shielding (and the Soviet's unwieldy reactor size), it would make perfect sense. Especially when you consider that they were going to a steam turbine-generator system, much like a submarine or aircraft carrier. However, you throw in the prospect of a train crash in an urban environment (with Borst did consider and their design included protection for the fuel tank and reactor) and the tremendous weight of the shielding, the locomotive becomes pretty unwieldy. Of course, a diesel-electric locomotive was a fraction of the cost and you could buy a lot of diesel fuel with the difference, so it wasn't exactly economically feasible, either.

        • Same thing with the NB-36. A nuclear reactor falling from the sky has been mooted as being A Bad Thing.

          • Not if it lands on Ohio.

          • CaptianNemo2001

            I would not miss Ohio.

            Plus nobody is stupid enough to let a massive plane fly around near a populated location… Oh wait, never mind. To idiot is to human.

            Land Ahoy!!!
            <img src="; width="500">

          • CaptianNemo2001

            The "Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications" (NERVA) series of ideas and tests is quite interesting.

          • fodder650

            The NB-36 story is even more interesting when you look at the jet engine designs. The one was a direct engine that heated the air with the heat from the reactor. So you would have a bombing flying 24 hours a day seeding the atmosphere with nuclear radiation.

          • CaptianNemo2001

            Yes it is more interesting. I have read about it a few times.

            I have too much time on my hands for this reading thing.

  • CaptianNemo2001

    "With only 14 kg needed to fuel the train for up to 4 months"

    Yah, real efficient here.4 months is total crap. You got maintenance an everything else to do on the train in a 4 month period.

    • Recurveman

      Maintenance? Who does maintenance on a nuclear reactor? Thats just silly…

      • CaptianNemo2001

        Maintenance on the train… Wheels ect… all that crap still has to be in barely working conditions.

        • fodder650

          It's nuclear and its during the cold war. All of it would have been state of the art and required no maintenance. Why do you hate freedom Nemo?

          • CaptianNemo2001

            I was referring to all the normal train maintenance on top of the nuclear pile which only lasts 4 months… If it was a once a year change over or once every 2 years I might go for it. But 4 months? If you can cross the country on a scheduled train in 7-11 days thats 4-3 trips a month… or 12-9 trips in 4 months… Unless they are running the thing 24/7 its not worth it. Plus what do you do with all the waste?

            If it lasted say 2-3 years between refueling I would go for it. Although the cost for a pure, high-speed, electric would probably be cheaper in the long run.

            IT IS ALL about down time and lowering that downtime as much as possible and making the most out of the locomotive as much as possible so that you can recoup your costs.

            "All of it would have been state of the art and required no maintenance." &lt; That is BS and you know it. Documenting government failure is nuclear research is a hobby of a great many people. Which I find sad, since instead of publishing it all the time maybe they could make it fail less.

            "Why do you hate freedom Nemo?"
            Trains have no freedom they are confined by rails.

            If it were me we would have 120 mph trains crisscrossing the country in very straight lines whenever possible. Alas, high-speed rails is but a dream of a bygone era.

          • fodder650

            I was kidding and replying how they would have during the Cold War to that answer. Anytime something unrealistic or overly expensive would appear that was the default answer to making the person just go do it.

            Yes a nuclear train makes no sense. The components would need extra maintenance because of all that weight. They would also wear out faster or have to be made far heavier to last longer. The logistics of this are also a bit of a nightmare. Like you said whats the point of having a nuclear engine if it has to stop three times a year?! That makes no sense at all. Plus if it had an accident in a major city the repercussions are maddening.

          • CaptianNemo2001

            That is one thing I like about the 1950's. They, more or less, truly believed they could do anything and change the world with science and had no problem trying anything and everything in order to do it. In the 1950's NGM's it is so positive that "science will solve all our problems" that it is on the verge of mind boggling.

            Its such a shift, in a 20 year period, from the 1930's that its almost incomprehensible. And then we decided we could go a bit further and do a bit more and entered the 1960's… Then 1970 hit and well, all this positive energy more or less went bust. =/

            For evidence, just read through advertizing and period articles on period subjects. I got something like 150 NGM's from 1950-1970. Working to get them all eventually.

          • fodder650

            Another way to see the pattern is to go look at the Popular Science and Popular Mechanics archives on Google Books. All the issues are there. You can see the patterns that way as well.

            I think the seventies were just a correction people were American got bored with the cold war all at once.

          • CaptianNemo2001

            Yah I have spent a lot of time on Google digging through Popular Science and Popular Mechanics archives looking for various things. Google Books is really a godsend unless you need the truly obscure, rare and old… OR anything from the 1920'-1950's.

            The 1930's is almost impossible to find anything on anything anywhere at any place I go to. Even at the university library its a dead zone. Lincoln alone has 1/4-1/3 of a row to himself.


            /End Rant.

  • What wasn't a candidate for nuclear power in the 1950s?

    • CaptianNemo2001

      Was going to say the automobile but that idea came out in 1958…

    • Vairship


      /I'll show myself out

  • A lot of electric trains today are nuclear powered, via the grid, of course…