Nuclear Powered Trains

Christian Sanders
March 20, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015

Future of Trains

Fig. 1: Electric train leaving nuclear power station. (Source: wikimedia Commons)

The concept of nuclear powered trains first surfaced seriously in 1950s when the idea became an official technical goal of the Ministry of Transport of the USSR. The talk of nuclear powered trains were very real and encouraging. [1] The idea seemed reasonable at the time because the dangers of nuclear reactors were not widely known. Locomotives have been a constant resource for transportation of all kinds of goods, useful both in speed and in amount of cargo transported. They are used in every country in the world. Unfortunately, these useful machines use fossil fuels and thus leave a carbon footprint every time they operate. The concept of a nuclear powered train has the potential for reducing both costs and CO2 emissions. The possible benefits of having nuclear powered trains include economic and transport efficiency, lower emissions, and ease of hauling cargo over great distances. Rail is already the greenest method of long-haul transportation. But is going greener worth the trouble? Is it a good idea to have a moving bomb on rails?

Justifiable or Political Scheme?

Russia has claimed to have become the lead innovators in developing and completing nuclear powered trains. [2] This idea is very exciting and promising, and this has encouraged efforts of funding for such a project. However, there are always great risks when dealing with nuclear reactors. Using a nuclear reactor to power a locomotive would require fitting a nuclear reactor on the locomotive and surrounding this reactor with necessary safety features. These would range from encasing the reactor to ensure control of emissions, to having an army on board of the train to help ward off any terrorists that might be looking to get their hands on a miniature nuclear reactor. Fitting a small reactor in a locomotive is technically feasible, as it has been done on submarines. [3] Nuclear powered submarines became reality in the early 1950's when first developed by the United States navy. [3] Concerns for safety arose, but became very public when the Canadian Armed Forces proposed jumping on board of this nuclear submarine change occurring in navies. [4] I think these same concerns should be brought up and discussed thoroughly for nuclear powered trains when the time is appropriate. Innovation is typically advantageous for society, but the risk/reward for completing these trains and implementing them may be too high. The increased attention to nuclear energy could simply be political power moves by these governments and companies as well. Politicians always like to support the environment, and a new idea like nuclear powered trains could help them get votes. The countries claiming to be developing these trains could just be trying to improve their reputations by supporting a possible "go green" innovation. Whatever the motive, however, safety must always remain of the upmost importance. Making the world a cleaner place through these trains might be beneficial, particularly to those who are running for a reelection soon, or it might not.

How They Work

The USPTO has allowed patents for nuclear locomotives. [5] This has pushed the design for locomotives to successfully use a nuclear reactor for propulsion to be developed. The design is as such; the locomotive carries a small portable nuclear reactor that heats a fluid to boiling, and passes it through electric turbine engines to produce electric power. The fluid/steam then recirculates through cooling radiators condensing it back to liquid before it passes back into the reactors again. This electric power would be used to power and cool the electromagnets, which help the train go. [6] It would be interesting to see nuclear trains come to reality in our world, considering we have already developed electrical powered trains, which essentially are just as efficient and could in fact be powered from an electrical or nuclear plant from a safe distance, away from the rail lines or any terrorists trying to commandeer a nuclear bomb. Fig. 1 depicts an electrical train leaving a nuclear power plant. This concept is also coming to use in the UK, where they are promoting nuclear power as green, and are proposing to use nuclear power plants as sources of electricity for their electric trains. [7] If nuclear powered trains do in fact become reality, and are used to help transport people, I may sign up for frequent flyer miles and hit the air more often. The potential dangers of a nuclear reactor would be too scary for me.

© Christian Sanders. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "The Atomic Locomotive," Life, 21 Jun 54.

[2] T. Nilsen, "Russia Designs Nuclear Train," Barents Observer, 24 Feb 11.

[3] D. Hernandez, "History of the Nuclear Navy," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2015.

[4] T. Curren "Nuclear Powered Submarines: Potential Environmental Effects," Canadian Library of Parliament, CA9200996, October 1988.

[5] L. B. Borst, "Nuclear Reactor for a Railway Vehicle," U.S. Patent 3127321, 31 Mar 64.

[6] W. G, Taylor, "Nuclear Locomotive," U. S. Patent Application," 20090283007, 19 Nov 09.

[7] M. Halper, "Britain's Nuclear Powered Trains," ZDNet, 16 Jan 13.