Written by C. Christian Monson
There never seems to be an end to the information that surfaces about the bizarre ways the US and Soviet governments tried to prepare their militaries during the Cold War. Naturally, both nations were imagining a full-scale nuclear war that would have had a number of implications and changed the style of warfare considerably from previous eras.
One of the most mysterious of these revelations has to be that of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory which remained mostly unknown until its closure in 1971 despite being located on 10,000 acres or roughly 40 square kilometers near Dawsonville, Georgia, just 40 miles or 65 kilometers north of Atlanta. This is pretty shocking because, also known as Air Force Plant 67, the GNAL was a research center for the Lockheed Corporation devoted to designing airplanes powered by nuclear reactors, not to mention the effects of nuclear radiation on the environment.
With urban development now approaching the former site and a large number of people hiking and hunting on the land, residents have become increasingly curious about what actually went on there, especially due to the many strange rumors that have come out about it. While most government documents on AFP 67 still remain classified, what can we glean about the secret nuclear tests that took place right next door to millions of Americans?
On 1 December 1958, the American magazine Aviation Week published an article entitled “Soviets Flight Testing Nuclear Bomber” which claimed that six months prior, the USSR had completed construction of a military aircraft powered by a nuclear reactor and that it had been observed flying over Moscow. While the US military had made theoretical designs for nuclear-powered aircraft, it didn’t even have anything experimental, much less operational. The US government feared it was some five years behind the Soviets when it came to the technology and decided to increase its priority and funding.
The technology itself was deemed so important because, at the time, it represented a dramatic increase in the range of nuclear weapons. A bomber with a nuclear engine could presumably circle the globe indefinitely without the need to refuel, meaning it could leave a base anywhere on earth and drop a nuclear warhead anywhere on earth. Plus, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be attached to a base at all. Such a plane could patrol the skies for days on end with its payload at the ready.
Additionally, an aircraft with essentially unlimited fuel would be highly advantageous in the event of all-out nuclear war. Even if primary military facilities were destroyed in the initial attacks and large swaths of territory contaminated, the high-flying planes would still be operational and could carry out missions of retaliation. In this way, keeping up with the Soviets was also necessary for the deterrence of mutually assured destruction.
However… that article in Aviation Week ultimately proved to be a hoax. The bomber spotted flying around Moscow was actually a Myasishchev M-50, indeed an experimental supersonic strategic bomber, but one powered by good ole combustion turbojet engines, not a nuclear reactor. By then, though, the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory and their experiments were well underway.
Few people know all the details of what went on at the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory, its confidential experiments shrouded in even more secrecy than many other air force testing facilities. However, some things have come out over the years.
The main obstacle that Lockheed’s scientists at GNAL faced while designing nuclear-powered aircraft wasn’t actually getting the nuclear reactor to run the plane’s engines but keeping the crew safe while doing so. A considerably thick shield and firewall were required, but they had to be light enough for the plane to fly.
To study how nuclear reactors would perform while flying, Lockheed developed an “air-shield reactor.” This was a nuclear reactor suspended on cables between two steel pillars. The researchers then observed the reactor from safety in deep underground tunnels. After the experiments, they lowered the reactor back into a storage pool.
For now, we can’t know exactly what projects these scientists carried out an GNAL, but it’s likely that the lab participated in the design of the WS-125 strategic bomber since Lockheed was involved in the development of the nuclear engines. In fact, Lockheed joined the project in 1956, the same year that the US government purchased the land for GNAL, so it seems likely that the WS-125 was at least part of the motivation for that.
While developing this bomber, the US Air Force was eventually able to power two General Electric J87 turbofan engines with nuclear reactors called the HTRE-2 and HRTE-3. Although you can actually still see these experimental reactors at the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 facility near the Idaho National Laboratory, the WS-125 was ultimately deemed unfeasible after an investment of over $1 billion and canceled in 1961.
Also canceled in 1961, the only American plane to successfully carry a nuclear reactor in flight was the Convair NB-36H, a converted B-36 bomber. The plane included a cabin lined with lead and rubber to protect the crew from the air-cooled nuclear reactor that weighed 35,000 pounds—16,000 kilograms—and produced a megawatt of power. However, the reactor didn’t actually power the plane but rather proved the feasibility of the shielding that would be used in the theoretical nuclear-powered Convair X-6. Although the project started in 1946, well before the opening of the GNAL, their timelines did overlap, and it’s likely that at least some of the research from the Georgia facility was used in the project.
Finally, an arguably more interesting project that the GNAL was likely involved in was the Lockheed CL-1201, a nuclear-powered airborne aircraft carrier. Obviously, this aircraft was never fully developed, but its design alone was pretty impressive.
With a wingspan of 1,120 feet or 340 meters, it would have had the largest of any plane ever created. Its nuclear reactor would have produced nearly 2,000 megawatts of power and could have kept the plane flying for over 40 days at a time via four main engines. Still, it would have required 182 conventional engines just to lift off.
The coolest thing of all, though, was that the plane’s massive size would have allowed it to carry over 800 crew members and 22 other fighter aircraft as well as two air-to-ground shuttles. It would have truly been a flying fortress.
However, the 1201 never came to fruition. In fact, with the invention of nuclear submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles that gave the two superpowers global range for their nuclear weapons, in addition to the lack of advancement in nuclear-powered aircraft, the US government closed the Georgia Nuclear Laboratory in 1971 and sold the land to the city of Atlanta. Not without some of their stranger experiments leaving a lasting mark on the terrain, though.
AN ENCHANTED WOOD
Many people who have gone hunting, hiking or cycling on the land previously belonging to the GNAL have reported seeing weird things. There have been reports of deer with extra eyes and antlers, albino bears and unnatural-looking foliage.
Whether these rumors are true or not, they are, at least, based in reality. The scientists at GNAL branched out from their aircraft research to study the effects of nuclear radiation on, well, just about everything. At first, Lockheed and the US Air Force mainly tested the effects of nuclear radiation on military equipment and building materials, which they would load onto rail cars and expose to the reactor’s radiation.
By 1959, they got even more ambitious. In combination with the University of Georgia, Emory University and the Atomic Energy Commission, the GNAL irradiated the forest surrounding the facility for weeks on end with the purpose of seeing how nuclear war might affect the terrain of the United States.
Well, these effects were pretty obvious. Life basically disappeared in a one-mile radius around the reactor. Plants stopped growing and lost their leaves. While that life has returned, is it possible some of it… mutated?
Though Atlanta originally bought the site in 1972 to build a second airport, it ultimately proved unsuitable for such a project, and the city turned it over to the Georgia Forestry Commission. They used it to create the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area and the Paulding Forest Wildlife Area.
These areas are mostly empty since Lockheed and the US Air Force tried to remove as much as they could of the Georgia National Laboratory when they closed it in 1971. This meant destroying the rail lines and bridges as well as flooding the underground tunnels.
Nevertheless, some remnants still remain. Namely, the “hot cell” buildings and the reactor site are actually still standing, though they were sealed and have since been fenced off. Additionally, the underground facility near the reactor site that consisted of three levels and allowed researchers to observe the reactor is still there, though it’s mostly flooded and covered with rubble.
Now, more people are visiting the area. Since the construction of Georgia State Route 400 through Dawson County, nearby residential developments have exploded. With a population of just around 3,600 in 1970, the county is currently home to over 26,000, most of whom are completely unaware of the nuclear experiments that went down just next door. After all, most of them remain classified.
Don’t worry, though. If you’re planning a move to Dawson County, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division does still monitor the area for hazardous radiation with tests every three months. Aside from the occasional cyclops deer sighting and a few hot spots of Cobalt 60 and Europium 152, officials have concluded the site no longer poses any risk to the public.
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