Of nuclear-powered airplanes and the bullet train
A long-forgotten aspect of the nuclear arms race was the costly undertaking by the United States to develop a nuclear-powered aircraft as a strategic bomber.
Even before Allied powers defeated Nazi Germany in 1945, both the United States and the Soviet Union were battling for post-war superiority. With the successful detonation of two atomic bombs — bringing the Pacific Theater hostilities to an abrupt halt — the U.S. had a brief period of nuclear superiority over the USSR.
That would not last long as the USSR quickly accelerated its nuclear program and the Cold War was on.
In May 1946, the United States Army Air Forces started the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA) project. The alluring idea was to build an aircraft that could, in theory, stay aloft indefinitely. In 1951, the NEPA project was succeeded by the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) program.
However, despite the efforts of America’s best nuclear and aviation scientists working with a virtually unlimited budget, the problems were insurmountable. The biggest hurdle was that nuclear reactors are very heavy. Sustaining one aloft with a fixed-wing aircraft turned out to be a challenge that could only be overcome by using a modified B-26 as a platform.
Reducing the weight of the reactors by shielding them with lighter material put the flight crews in danger from the high risk of radiation exposure. This latter problem never worried the Soviets in that their similar programs were willing to so expose the crews. But this led to an unacceptable mortality rate, even for the Soviets.
After more than a decade of throwing good dollars after bad, the aircraft nuclear propulsion programs were substantially terminated by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
The lessons of history should be instructive for Californians, who have watched for more than a decade as the state has thrown their money into the increasingly impossible high-speed rail program.
Even before the California High-Speed Rail bond proposal appeared on the ballot in November 2008, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association commissioned a study in conjunction with the Reason Foundation because of deep concerns about the project’s viability. The study, published in September 2008, warned:
“The CHSRA plans as currently proposed are likely to have very little relationship to what would eventually be built due to questionable ridership projections and cost assumptions, overly optimistic projections of ridership diversion from other modes of transport, insufficient attention to potential speed restrictions and safety issues and discounting of potential community or political opposition. Further, the system’s environmental benefits have been grossly exaggerated, especially with respect to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that have been associated with climate change.”
Every negative prediction about the project came to be realized. Even initial advocates of the project, including a former chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority, have turned against the costly boondoggle.
At the end of 2018, California’s own state auditor issued a scathing report excoriating the project’s mismanagement, waste and lack of transparency. Speed-readers needed to go no further than the subtitle to learn the conclusion: “Flawed decision making and poor contract management have contributed to billions in cost overruns and delays in the system’s construction.”
Nothing has improved since then, and much looks even worse.
In December 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration objected to the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s plan to issue a request for proposals to build train track and install electrical wiring and maintenance facilities. The FRA warned, “it is premature for CHSRA to undertake another major design-build contract.” Disregarding the concerns, the rail authority went ahead the next day with its plan to issue the RFP.
In February, the authority issued its latest two-year “business plan,” which once again increased the projected cost and reported a further delay in completion. Color us shocked.
Soon after, a draft environmental document outlined the preferred route from Bakersfield to Palmdale, an engineering feat that would cost $18.1 billion and mow down a high school, a homeless shelter, a church, eight motels, 253 housing units, 311 businesses and 175 agricultural fields.
In March, the Los Angeles Times revealed that employees of the rail authority’s top consultant had been ordered to hide bad news about the project.
There’s no hiding it. The Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the latest HSR business plan is not realistic, has significant funding challenges, is susceptible to further cost overruns and is inconsistent with voter intent because it relies on public subsidies.
In the 1960s, the president and Congress wisely pulled the plug on a failed project when it became obvious that all the money in the Pentagon couldn’t make it fly.
Until California’s government wises up, we’ll be stuck watching our taxpayer dollars fly out the window.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.