• Nuclear Locomotives

  • General discussion about locomotives, rolling stock, and equipment
General discussion about locomotives, rolling stock, and equipment

Moderator: John_Perkowski

  by sunsetcc333
Several countries are very serious about developing nuclear locomotives in their quest for green energy. Brazil and China to name two. The advantages are less pollution, low cost over the long run, lower maintenance and easier to run. The big disadvantage is what happens if there is a collision?
  by Cascade Northern
I don't think this is an ALCO.
  by tgibson

Alco did get into the nuclear power business, though, as I remember. :)
  by RussNelson
Well, imagine a locomotive with the nuclear core protected by two slugs in front, and two slugs in back, with sufficient crushable material to absorb the impact of another train. Five locomotives sounds excessive? Not when the energy is cheap enough. Two's not enough? Use three, for a seven-car locomotive.
  by Typewriters
ALCO was indeed in the nuclear power business; I cannot recall whether it tried to become a prime contractor (responsible for design, construction, operation and admininstration) but I for sure know that it was a secondary contractor (manufacturing plant parts, particularly shell-and-tube heat exchangers.)

I just made a post in the general rolling stock topic on this forum, under the heading "hydroelectric locomotive" wherein that discussion has rambled off into impossibility regarding nuclear powered locomotives. In this vein it might be worth viewing.

-Will Davis
  by Allen Hazen
Yes, Alco was in the nuclear power business. Steinbrenner's "Alco: a centennial history" discusses this, with a photo of a heat exchanger. (My copy is on the wrong side of the Pacific Ocean for me to check details or give page references.) In the 1950s the company was trying very hard to diversify outside the railroad supply industry; since a lot of a nuclear power plant is plumbing (plumbing desdigned to work at high temperatures and pressures), Alco's previous experience with things like oil refinery equipment was relevant. I think many people would have thought Alco's efforts in this direction were rational: it wasn't realized in the 1950s that the growth of the civilian nuclear power industry would stall the way it has since Three Mile Island!
There was also a proposal in the 1950s for a nuclear powered locomotive, and I think Alco was at least partly behind it. (Someone on the same side of the Pacific as their copy of Steinbrenner, could you check and see whether this is mentioned?) I don't know how much development work actually went into this idea: it generated a "Popular Mechanics" (??? or "Popular Science"???) cover story at the time, but such stories can be pretty pie-in-the-sky. I've seen (somewhere: Steinbrenner?) artwork: a multi-unit carbody set with more than a passing resemblance to an A-B-B-A set of FA. ... Recall that American railroads dieselized with prime movers very similar to those used on U.S.N. submarines, so the idea of a railroad equivalent of the USS Nautilus isn't TOTALLY loopy! Whether it was given up because the cost estimates showed it not to be competitive with diesels or because somebody at the AEC talked to somebody at the FRA about the likelihood of derailments and the problems of cleanup afterwards I don't know.
I think I also read SOMEWHERE, decades ago, about the idea that a railroad to Tibet could use atomic-powered locomotives. GE's locomotives for the line that was finally built into Tibet are called AC38, despite having the same prime mover as the domestic AC44: diesel engines suffer reductions in power when operated in thin air, which an atomic unit wouldn't! But I can't remember where this idea came from: it may not have had anything to do with the U.S. nuclear locomotive proposal.
  by Typewriters
Allen, I don't know about that Steinbrenner book although I do know of the Baldwin project to build an atomic locomotive although I think absolutely nothing came to the hardware stage.

But, and not to be argumentative - for the record, a railroad "USS Nautilus" IS totally loopy! Please go over to that "Locomotives and rolling stock" section on this site to see what's going on under "Hydroelectric Locomotive" and you'll see a whole bunch of realistic, serious, well-considered reasons why this kind of thing is confined to such things as Popular Mechanics and the minds of Tom Clancy fans. Many, many millions of dollars were spent at the advent of atomic power to determine what it could and could not do and the fact that not one piece of railroad hardware was ever made should be a clear indication. Heck, we have enough of a problem here in the US trying to get even ONE new land-based nuclear powerplant's paperwork through the NRC just to get preliminary permits, not to mention actual contracts much less construction! If you think they'll let anything like this ever get built, you're nuts! :wink:

Kidding aside, though, zip over there and check out that discussion and you'll see why this is a lark.

-Will Davis
  by D.Carleton
On pages 183-184 of Marc Frattasio's excellent book, The New Haven Railroad in the McGinnis Era, there is a three paragraph blurb about a proposed atomic locomotive. There is a very basic illustration depicting the basic component layout within the carbody of a locomotive which looks like an EMD E8. The source material was the Wall Street Journal of October 27, 1955.

In those days nuclear power was going to be used in everything from power plants to switch-stand lanterns. Having retired from two decades in that business I rather glad that didn't happen.
  by pablo
I agree that this isn't an ALCO topic, but one thought:

We know what happens when the price of copper spikes, yes? Anything not nailed down gets legs and walks away.

Now, imagine a nuke-powered train in EBFE tied down waiting 12 hours for the next crew. Right.

Dave Becker
  by Allen Hazen
For the moment this doesn't seem to be an Alco topic, so maybe it should be moved to the "Locomotives and Rolling Stock - General" forum? But...
I Googled "atomic locomotive." There seems to have been a bit of ... well, at least, talk ... about nuclear powered locomotives in the mid 1950s, in the U.S. and in Germany. "Time" magazine in 1956 had an article on civilian nuclear power developments (generally very optimistic about the prospects for electric generation and lots of niche applications, but dismissive of others) that said:

"The report punctured such dreams as the atomic automobile (it would weigh 100,000 Ibs.), the atomic airliner (shielding passengers would add too much weight) and the atomic locomotive (no better than a diesel)."

But for this to be written, somebody must have done at least back-of-the-envelope calculations. Apparently a man named Gunnell, in the Southern Railway's mechanical department, gave a talk on atomic locomotives in about 1956 to an industry conference: it was printed up as an 11-page booklet, available now from a rare book dealer for $60.

I can't remember where I read about the atomic locomotive idea in recent years: my recollection is that someone had come up with rather disappointing power/weight ratios, with the result that it was thought the resulting locomotive would be most applicable to heavy, drag, freight. (Maybe this was because of the amount of shielding needed?)

Will Davis-- Thanks for pointing us to the discussion on the other forum! (The atomic locomotive is a non-starter for safety and economic reasons. Some of the other ideas discussed there are WORSE: non-starters for PHYSICAL reasons. When I said the idea of a railroad Nautilus wasn't completely loopy, I should have been a bit more specific: I only meant that the idea wasn't completely loopy as a physics problem. Awareness of the safety issues about nuclear reactors seems to have been much lower in the 1950s than it is now, but even so it's surprising the atomic locomotive idea got as much discussion as it seems to have!)
  by mxdata
ALCO was involved in the construction of nuclear reactors that were small enough to be mounted in a locomotive or even transported in an airplane.

  by Engineer Spike
I live about 3 towns north of Schenectady. In the local paper, there was an article about the reactor in the old Alco plant. After the plant closed, it was given over for RPI to use in its nuke engineering classes. The reason that it was brought up is because they were going to redevelop the old site.
  by nessman
Interesting idea... but some problems.

Costs - capital outlay per locomotive would be cost-prohibitive.

Water - and lots of it to help cool the reactor and generate steam to turn a turbine to turn a generator to generate electricity to run the traction motors. I understand you had the same issue with steam locomotives, but there were facilities every so many miles.

NIMBY's, Greenpeace, environmental wackos, etc... - 'nuff said

Contamination - in a collision, there's the issue of keeping the radioactive stuff from escaping (i.e., aforementioned steam and water). We're not talking about spent nuclear fuel casks that can withstand just about anything.

Post 9/11 issues - you'd have to have an armed security team on each train in today's world.

NOW... that said, one viable approach would be the use of electric locomotives with catenary powered by a nuclear power plant which would achieve the same goals, albeit with greater construction costs for the electrical stuff (catenary, nuke plant, etc...).
  by Nukengineer
Although it is an interesting idea, it NEVER will happen. Nessman summed it up quite well. Having some experience in the nuclear field, I can add this; In the early days of nuclear power (1940's and 50's) in general there was more emphasis on beating the russians than there was on safety. ALCO got involved as a supplier because they were into heavy manufacturing and close to Knolls Atomic Power Lab (KAPL) wich was under DOE licence and owned by GE at the time for developing naval nuclear reactors. As stated in earlier posts, they were able to produce some specialized quality items like heat exchangers. There was, at the same time in Idaho, attempts to build a mobile reactor (via semi truck) for radar stations in Alaska and Canada (type SL-1) and a type for a bomber. The SL-1 was actually built, but it had a major accident after only a few years of operation and that program was scrapped. The aircraft reactors never got off the ground, but significant infrastrucure was built. (Getting back to railroading...) http://www.inl.gov/proving-the-principle/chapter_13.pdf on page 8 as viewed in the PDF shows the highly SHIELDED loco and turntable used for moving the aircraft reactor around. If you look carefully, you will note that the track is std gauge for the loco and a very wide gauge for the car that carries the reactor.
If the loco were to be nuclear powered, there would be a need for shielding for the crew (front and rear) of the reactor and on the sides for the general public. If memory serves me, the limit for the general public is 1mr/hr. If the engine is moving, no issue, but if it stops anywhere there would be alot of issues with the several tons of lead and steel needed for this. NIMBYS would always say there is an issue.
The security would also be an issue. The cars that haul nuke waste (even before 9/11) typically have passanger cars/ caboose for the security detail that rides along. I looked for an old thread (couldnt find it - may have been in version 2 of the forum as it was prior to 2004) that dealt with the loading of a nuclear shipping container onto a flat car at Ballston Spa, NY 5-10 years ago which talked about security.

Water wouldnt be an issue as the plant itself would be leak tight and wouldnt need to be refilled in transit as a steam engine would. The water issue would be for emergency cooling should there be an accident (several tank cars and thus more weight).

The only way a nuclear engine would become viable for mobile use would be if direct conversion from nuclear energy (electrons, protons and such) to electric power become a reality. This not only would reduce the size and weight of the reactor, but would eliminate the steam plant (turbines and such) and need for water. This is not going to happen in the civilian world for decades (if at all) even though the military may or may not be working on it now http://www.kaplinc.com/whatwedo/index.html.
  by Trainman101
Build a nuclear power plant, buy some electric locomotives, and bingo! A nuclear powered locomotive, its that simple.