At any given moment, several of the US Navy’s Nimitz class aircraft carriers are sailing the world’s oceans. Weighing in at 90 thousand tons, these massive vessels need a lot of power to get moving. One would think this power requires a lot of fuel which would limit their range, but this is not the case. Their range is virtually unlimited, and they only need refueling every 25 years. What kind of technology allows for this? The answer is miniaturized nuclear power plants. Nimitz class carriers have two of them, and they are pretty much identical to the much larger power plants that make electricity. If we can make them small enough for ships, can we make them small enough for other things, like airplanes?


Nuclear reactors use the controlled splitting of uranium atoms to produce energy. This energy is transferred into water as heat. The water is kept under high pressure, which keeps it from turning into steam, and allows it tobecome super heated. The super heated water is moved to a heat exchanger, where it heats another source of water to produce steam. This second heat exchanger not only allows for transfer of energy, but also isolates the radioactivity from the rest of the system. The non-radioactive steam from the second heat exchanger is then used to turn a turbine that produces electricity. The steam eventually heads to a condenser, where it turns back into liquid water and is moved to the second heat exchanger.
So now we know how nuclear power works, we get to work on the fun stuff! Our job is to discuss how we can make it really really small and cram it into an airplane. And then examine the consequences of such technology.