The other day, being particularly bored, I watched “Snowpiercer” online (Yes, I was that bored), and it reminded me of the thought of nuclear power in a locomotive application.
According to the movie, – I’m certain that the anime and manga versions were better representations – Snowpiercer ran on some sort of “perpetual motion engine” on a world-encircling track. Cool idea, and ridiculously implemented in the post-apocalyptic movie genre, showing the locomotive and multiple cars bashing through a year’s worth of snow-drift without derailing. Crazy, right? Well, let’s forget that part. What about the engine? Obviously, modern diesel locomotives would have been a poor choice, since refining and refueling stations would be in short supply in a new-ice-age climate-change-ravaged wasteland. On the other hand, what about a nuclear locomotive?
Considering that the modern diesel locomotive puts out a lot of carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, and PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns AKA soot), they are a major source of pollution in the transportation system in the United States. All told, diesel locomotives are part of the ≈30% of greenhouse gas emissions generated by the transportation sector in the US. The diesel locomotive competes with the diesel tractor-trailer as the backbone of nationwide transportation of goods. Greenhouse gas emissions, of course are a concern, which make the nuclear locomotive an interesting choice, in spite of its obvious problems (read: nuclear waste disposal).
Still, could a nuclear locomotive eliminate a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US transportation sector? Back in the 1950s, Researchers at the University of Utah, as well as a number of corporations, such as General Motors, General Electric, Westinghouse, and Trane, collaborated to develop the design of the X-12, a nuclear locomotive. The 160-foot 360-ton beast would have run on fissionable U235 in a 3-by-1-foot tank, surrounded by 200 tons of shielding. According to the patent, the nuclear locomotive could circumnavigate the globe twice before refueling, perhaps 50,000 miles. Speaking strictly from a climate change standpoint, that’s a lot of carbon dioxide emissions eliminated.
Image © iO9