While Washington's political leaders and much of the nation's news media have been calling attention to and raising alarm over Iran's nuclear program, the United States has been quietly making plans for nuclear-powered unmanned planes, according to the London Guardian newspaper.
"American scientists have drawn up plans for a new generation of nuclear-powered drones capable of flying over remote regions of the world for months on end without refueling," the U.K. daily reported. The project is a joint effort of Sandia National Laboratories, the principal U.S. nuclear research and development agency, and Northrop Grumman, one of the nation's leading defense contractors. The goal is to increase "from days to months" the flying time of the unmanned vehicles without refueling stops. The nuclear powered propulsion will also make more power available for operating equipment on board, according to a project summary published by Sandia. The research into "ultra-persistence technologies" is aimed at solving three limitations of drone flights: inadequate "hang time" over targets, a shortage of power for running the sophisticated surveillance and weapons systems on board, and inadequate communications capacity.
The summary "does not spell out the fact that it is referring to a nuclear-powered drone," the Guardian reported, referring instead to "propulsion and power technologies that went well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies." But the London daily identifies the project's lead investigator as Dr Steven Dron, a specialist in nuclear propulsion. The reluctance to spell out the nuclear power involved may have to do with controversies over nuclear fuels in general, as well as the already existing opposition to drones in some quarters.
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