Government scientists find it "disappointing" that “current political conditions will not allow use" of a nuclear-powered drone that can fly around the Earth for months. We do not. Why? Because the mere thought of a nuclear reactor flying around the heavens, snapping pictures of villages and possible firing rockets at them is absolutely horrifying, that's why. Set aside the fear of a nuclear reactor crashing in your yard — these would be drones that would not run out of power.
ProPublica's Justin Elliott just posted a set of documents (PDF) from the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico dated June 2011 that detail the development and testing of said nuke drones. With the help of scientists from Northrop Grumman, the scientists mapped out the feasibility of building such an aircraft, not only from a technical point of view but, apparently, a political one too. The military benefits of such a weapon tool are pretty clear: Building a nuke drone would make it possible “to increase [unmanned aerial vehicle] sortie duration from days to months while increasing available electrical power at least two-fold." That's where the nuclear power comes into play. As Steven Aftergood points out on the FAS Project on Government Secrecy's blog:
The project summary, which refers to "propulsion and power technologies that [go] well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies," does not actually use the word "nuclear." But with unmistakable references to "safeguards," "decommissioning and disposal," and those unfavorable "political conditions," there is little doubt about the topic under discussion.
There are really two ways of reacting to this news. One, good for the government scientists for deciding not to build a flying, unmanned nuclear power plant. (Bear in mind that we don't actually know if they've continued work on the project since last June.) Two, let's make this a teaching moment. Last December when CIA lost a drone over Iran was a teaching moment, too. Just imagine if it had an American-made nuclear reactor inside of it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.