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Heavy Metal – Nuclear Locomotives vs Diesel Locomotives

Could a Nuclear Locomotive Cut Emissions in the Transportation Sector?
Could a Nuclear Locomotive Cut Emissions in the Transportation Sector?

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

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  1. gcowan49  Still, even nuclear would only be a stepping-stone to carbon-free radiation-free transportation. i’m sure it’s possible, but big money is a huge obstacle.

  2. Don’t today’s diesel-electric locomotives go a lot further in their lifetimes than 50,000 miles? Five million, I guess.

    Getting that much range from a sphere of uranium nitride should be fairly easy … eight million km, averaging 80 km/h, takes 100,000 hours. Times 80 thermal megawatts, that makes 8 TWh, and so 360 kg U must be fissioned. Dividing by five percent burnup, 7.2 tonnes. With half the sphere’s volume taken by coolant channels, we’re at 1 cubic metre.

    Ever since the nuclear age began, people who know the basics of nuclear engineering have been dreaming of reactors cooled by liquid lead. None has ever been built. In a nuclear locomotive it might be just the thing.

    But as long as fossil fuels continue to subsidize government, nuclear power research, especially research that isn’t limited to computer screens and occasional printouts, will get no public funding. A Hansen dividend , applied not to his proposed new fossil fuel tax but to existing ones, will eliminate this conflict of interest and allow many new reactor types to be built.


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