Nuclear Powered Aircraft!?
Readers of my blog and The Gemstone Chronicles know that I spent a decade in US Navy riding submarines and recruiting. I was trained as a nuclear reactor operator, and still keep up with some of the news in the nuclear world. My lovely and adorable bride, Lana, introduced me to a very cool website atlasobscura.com. While browsing the site, I came across an article on a government research facility from the 1950’s in Dawsonville, Georgia. What does this have to do with submarines or nuclear power? Well, this research facility was used to test the radiation effects on various materials and the surrounding forest in an effort to build a nuclear powered aircraft! The map below, though kind of hard to read, shows the layout of the site.
According to our friends at Wikipedia, the site was the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory (or AFP No. 67) and was run by Lockheed. The purpose was to test various military vehicles and the surrounding forest to assess the effects of nuclear war on the environment and wildlife and the do research on a nuclear powered aircraft. The site was closed in 1971 and sold to Atlanta as a potential site of a second airport. The topography wasn’t suitable for an airport, and nature has reclaimed much of the site. Here is a picture of the hot cell building.
With the secrecy surrounding the site, it comes as no surprise that most of the documents about what was done in the forest remains highly classified. And no nuclear powered aircraft came from the work. It does make me wonder, though, if some of the experiments led to materials used on submarines.
I did further research and found a lot of conspiracy stuff (not surprisingly) about the site. I also found claims of animals with interesting deformities and abnormalities. There are alleged sightings of deer with two racks of antlers, albino black bears, and other such creatures. In the research I did, one of the reactors on site was an open air (or naked) reactor that was hoisted into the air while operational and without shielding, allowing the radiation to blast the surrounding forest. Personnel at the site were in underground shielded areas during the open air testing. The picture below shows the site circa 1960.
The underground facility was supposedly six or seven levels deep, but who knows for sure. When the site closed, the entrance tunnels were collapsed and sealed. One of the remaining visible buildings is the hot cell, which is also sealed and surrounded by barbed wire fencing. The hot cell is where they placed irradiated materials for further study. The building was deemed to be too hot to demolish until the radiation levels subsided more. That might be another 30-50 years…
The area is now public land managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. There are plenty of hiking and biking trails, and you can kayak down the Etowah River that runs through the site.
As you can imagine, I have to take a trip up there to look around. It isn’t very far from where I live, so maybe next weekend might be a good time to go! When I do, I will be sure to post pics and do a follow-up to this post.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, we never had a nuclear powered aircraft. The USAF did experiment with a reactor in a plane, but that was to test the shielding for the crew. The reactor never actually powered the engines. I do recall when I was in Idaho in the Navy, there was an experiment going on to convert nuclear power for space travel, though, but I don’t know much more than that.
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