Nuclear-powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that would increase operational flight durations from days to months are a technological possibility today, according to a feasibility study undertaken last year by Sandia National Laboratories and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation. A nuclear power supply would additionally double the availability of electrical power to onboard systems, including weaponry, the study found.
The word nuclear appears nowhere in the project summary obtained and published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), but there are numerous indications that this was indeed the prime power source under investigation. Though the project summary euphemistically refers to a focus on "power technologies that went well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies," the FAS identifies words such as "safeguards," "decommissioning and disposal," and "political conditions" that prevent such technology seeing the light of day (for now, at any rate) which seem to strongly suggest the examination of nuclear technology.
Further, Dr. Steven B. Dron, who was the project's lead investigator at Sandia is, as the FAS puts it, a "specialist in nuclear propulsion," who co-chaired a session titled Non-nuclear testing in support of nuclear thermal propulsion development at the 25th Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion in 2008.
In a response to the FAS story, Sandia does not flatly deny the investigation of nuclear propulsion systems for unmanned drones, but does stress the preliminary nature of the study. "Sandia is often asked to look at a wide range of solutions to the toughest technical challenges," it told the FAS. "The research on this topic was highly theoretical and very conceptual. The work only resulted in a preliminary feasibility study and no hardware was ever built or tested. The project has ended."
However, the summary does make clear that UAVs fitted with "alternative" power sources would "be able to provide far more surveillance time and intelligence information per mission," and that the "technical goals for the project were accomplished."
The report suggests that only political will swayed by public opinion stands in the way of nuclear-powered drones. "Unfortunately, none of the results will be used in the near-term or mid-term future," it says, adding that "political realities would not allow use of the results."
In its interpretation of the report the UK's Guardian asserts that opposition would stem from "the inherent dangers of either a crash - in effect turning the drone into a so-called dirty bomb - or of its nuclear propulsion system falling into the hands of terrorists or unfriendly powers." However, the anticipated political objection could additionally stem from ethical objections to the idea of what effectively amounts to a permanent surveillance presence (with potential strike capability) over foreign territories.