London, Oct 28 : A scientist has predicted that later this century, nuclear-powered aircraft will be transporting millions of passengers around the world.
According to a report in The Times, the scientist in question is Ian Poll, Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Cranfield University, and head of technology for the Government-funded Omega project.
Because the aircraft will no longer need to land to refuel, it might mean non-stop flights from London to Australia or New Zealand.
The flights will also produce no carbon emissions and therefore make no contribution to global warming.
Professor Poll is calling for a big research programme to help the aviation industry convert from fossil fuels to nuclear energy.
Experiments conducted during the Cold War have already demonstrated that there are no insurmountable obstacles to developing a nuclear-powered aircraft, according to Poll.
"We need to be looking for a solution to aviation emissions which will allow flying to continue in perpetuity with zero impact on the environment," Poll told The Times.
"We need a design which is not kerosene-powered, and I think nuclear-powered aeroplanes are the answer beyond 2050. The idea was proved 50 years ago, but I accept it would take about 30 years to persuade the public of the need to fly on them," he added.
According to Poll, the big challenge would be to demonstrate that passengers and crew could be safely shielded from the reactors.
"It's done on nuclear submarines and could be achieved on aircraft by locating the reactors with the engines out on the wings," he said. "The risk of reactors cracking open in a crash could be reduced by jettisoning them before impact and bringing them down with parachutes," he added.
Poll said that, in the worst-case scenario, if the armour plating around the reactor was pierced there would be a risk of radioactive contamination over a few square miles.
"If we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of air travel without hindrance from environmental concerns, we need to explore nuclear power. If aviation remains wedded to fossil fuels, it will run into serious trouble," he said.
"Unfortunately, nuclear power has been demonized, but it has the potential to be very beneficial to mankind," he added.