“It’s over there,” my friend and co-worker told me as we sped along the road. I looked and squinted and maybe saw the distant shape of a building through the dusty air. Thick sections of fencing separated the road from the vast scrubland between us and the shape. “That’s where it’s at,” he assured me.

I had been assigned to Idaho Falls, specifically the Idaho National Energy Laboratory in 1992 to do some research on NEPA – the National Environmental Policy Act – for the lab and some of its partners. Two weeks in, and my friend decided to show me around. Like all of the labs, INEL is not centered in one building, rather there are dozens of buildings and land areas spread out all over the place, in this case thousands of acres.

All of the labs at that time (right now there are 17 of them in 13 states) collectively employed hundreds of thousands of people and were conducting some of the most advanced, high-tech work in the world. In many ways, the ’90s were a second glory days for the labs, but the Golden Years were the ’40s and ’50s. In those decades, money was absolutely no object. Whatever the labs wanted they got  – they won World War II, after all!!!! That included a billion dollars for a nuclear-powered airplane. That’s a billion bucks in 1950s-money, by the way.

This was the building housing that airplane that my friend was showing me, tucked far away from town and, he assured me, protected by more security than the president. Don’t know about that but between barbed wire, lots of double-tiered fencing and the obligatory No Trespassing signs, there weren’t too many souls stupid enough to try and get a peek at what was inside.

According to the local lore, the concept for the plane was simple: put a nuclear reactor in it and the thing could fly forever, pretty handy for top-ranking officials like the president in case of that nuclear war they kept promising – eh, prophesying. But the reactor made the thing so darn heavy that the plane had to have an incredible wing span. Of course, making sure there’s an unlimited supply of food and water and then there’s the messy problem with human waste….  

This picture may be the nuclear-powered plane, can’t say for sure. Source: Flying on Nuclear, The American Effort to Built (sic) a Nuclear Powered Bomber by Raul Colon

And, considering the safety record regarding all of those atomic experiments thus far, well, saving the prez from nuclear annihilation just to have him die from radiation poisoning…you get the drift. So, again according to the local lore, the plane was built, but never got off the ground. So there it sits, in it’s secure building, to this day.

Recently, I came across this 2008 article from Scientific American, “Resuscitating the Atomic Airplane: Flying on a Wing and an Isotope” which verified some of the local lore: the aircraft was indeed built in the mid-1950s, at a cost of more than $1 billion in 1950s money. The plane weighed 400,000 pounds and had a wingspan of 230 feet. As a comparison, a Boeing 747 weighs a little more than half that, 223,000 pounds without passengers; the wingspan of the Boeing is 212 feet, about the same. However, the article says the atomic plane actually did fly – 47 times, in fact.

I cannot find any information about what ultimately happened to the aircraft: Is it really in that very large building outside of Idaho Falls?

While I was working at INEL, there was a local dust-up involving a junk dealer vs. the Department of Energy. Government agencies are allowed to sell surplus stuff from time to time. The stuff might be desks and chairs, cabinets or tools, properly documented and determined to be free of any toxic elements and not wanted or needed anymore. Most of the stuff is pretty “usual” and very little, if any, comes into the category of technical or sensitive equipment.

Except once.

INEL conducted what seemed to be a routine surplus auction and a local, well-known salvage dealer bought a “lot” – which means a pallet or two of boxed stuff. In this case, the boxes were pretty big and what was inside may have been kind of jumbled together, and not particularly recognizable. Somehow, the salvage dealer kind of suspected what was inside, bought it for several thousands of dollars, and trucked it to his yard.

A few weeks later, INEL and the DOE realized they had made a BIG OOOOPs, determining that the boxes contained actual nuclear processing equipment, along with documents and schematics. And blueprints, enough info so that the processor could be re-built and then used to process…uranium. Maybe even weapons-grade uranium, the kind that goes boom in a very awful way. What did the salvage dealer intend to do with this processor? Keep it? Sell it? And sell it to whom? Yikes.

The subsequent ramifications soon became known to the local media and there were several days of front-page articles in the local paper as the wrangling (to put it mildly) ensued between INEL, DOE, and the salvage dealer. I talked with a high-ranking DOE official about this, who hinted that there was some bad blood between the dealer and the government, and “there’s more to the story.” Well, there always is, isn’t there.

Eventually, the matter was settled somewhat secretively, perhaps the salvage dealer got a tiny bonus on top of the original sun he had paid. Don’t know, but INEL got their junk back. It was certainly a black eye for INEL/DOE, and was mentioned in this report.

It demonstrates how the ’90s pre 9/11 were such a kindler, gentler time, doesn’t it? If something like this happened today, all of the national news cycles would have instantly picked it up and who knows what would have happened to the salvage dealer. As I have pointed out in another chapter on another subject, even the hint of terrorism would have earned him a one-way ticket to Guantanamo.

Denver      Idaho Falls      Albuquerque       Los Alamos