The body itself is a cheery candy red with a distinctive new-car gleam. Bold silver letters along the back spell the name “Nucleon”. The Ford Nucleon, to be exact. At the time of its creation it was unlike any car ever seen in the world — old-fashioned, and at the same time futuristic in the way only designs of the 50’s could be.
In this, the height of the Atomic Age, the car has been specially designed to run on none other than nuclear power. The metal circle on the rear of the car is to host the power capsule. This capsule will use uranium in what would essentially be a miniature nuclear power plant. The idea is that the uranium will produce enough heat to turn water into steam, which will in turn drive a turbine, spin a generator, and result in electricity. An alternative model uses the steam created by the uranium to directly power the engine, with additional power sources being used for the remainder of the car’s mechanisms.
The Nucleon is a steam powered machine. Centuries old technology was repackaged with a 50’s optimistic feel.
Nuclear automobiles would have had many benefits including utilizing cleaner, cutting-edge energy that was, at the time, thought to be much more affordable than coal, gas, or oil. Not only was it better for the environment but the opinion of experts held that atomic energy would be “too cheap to meter”. Drivers would only need to stop by a nuclear station every 5,000 miles to replenish their fuel. For the average driver of today this is about every 4.5 months. There was still the obvious problem of radiation, but lead shielding would protect the drivers from any harmful exposure.
And we have seen the wonders of what nuclear power can do in modern day craft. NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, for example, use a radioisotope power system in which the heat of plutonium’s decay produces electricity. This creates a reliable flow of energy that allows the rover to have a lifespan of at least one Martian year, or the equivalent of 687 Earth days. In nuclear powered submarines the atomic energy source decreases the frequency at which the submarine has to resurface to refuel. It reduces this frequency so much that nuclear submarines can travel underwater for decades without refueling. Designs for future watercraft expect them to resurface only once every 50 years.
Such is the power of something like a pound of uranium. That amount alone could power a submarine or an aircraft. Even less would be required for a car.
So what happened to the dream of the nuclear powered automobile?
The same thing that happened to the dream of nuclear trains and aircraft. You see, at the same time that the US was focusing on using atomic energy for cars, the USSR was dreaming of using atomic energy for trains instead. Just as with the car, a miniature nuclear reactor would be fitted onto the train to heat water into steam and turn turbines to create electricity. Cooling radiators would turn the steam back into a liquid which would once again make its way into the reactor. The electricity generated would go towards powering and cooling the train’s electromagnets. A locomotive like this would have been more environmentally friendly, efficient, and affordable.
However, the greatest downfall in making nuclear trains, cars, and planes is the radioactivity of the elements in question. Because the radioactive elements will be in close proximity to people, they require heavy shielding that renders vehicles almost immobile. Or, in the case of aircraft, prevents them from taking off and being aerodynamically efficient. This is the reason behind the Nucleon’s elongated red shape — not so much to put distance between the driver and the uranium but to allow for better weight distribution after the addition of heavy shielding. Shielding must not only contain the radiation in an airtight enclosure, but must also be resistant against collisions, earthquakes, and purposeful tampering in an attempt to collect the radioactive materials inside. One can only imagine how the collision between two radioactive vehicles could have played out.
In order to reconcile the weight of the materials with an aircraft’s need to fly, the US military even proposed forgoing most of the shielding altogether and using older pilots who would die before the radiation could do them too much harm. Yet it wasn’t just the pilots who would have been at risk. The heat coming from the onboard reactor could have melted through the plane, eventually landing and contaminating some populated place down below.
The dream of nuclear powered machines died as radiation accidents began to turn public opinion. Atomic energy seemed now dangerous and reckless, and on top of that never became any more affordable than the more traditional oil and gas. Complicated logistics, distrust from the public, and competitive prices from fossil fuels brought an abrupt end to concepts like the ambitious Ford Nucleon.
The Nucleon never made it past a small-scale model a fraction of the size of a regular car. Modern day attempts like the 2009 thorium powered car from Cadillac emphasized the power of nuclear energy, stating that one gram of thorium fuel has the energy equivalent of 7,000 gallons of gasoline. We still, of course, have not figured out how to use thorium in a fully functional breeder reactor, and much less in the portable form needed for a car.
Yet there is something to be learned of these far-reaching designs. Some of these ideas may hinge on the practical, but more than anything these concepts are about imagination. They’re a reminder and an inspiration for the development of alternative fuels for our machines. Our creativity has gotten us this far, and it’s our creativity that’ll conceive the craft of the future — nuclear powered cars or nuclear powered spaceships, relying on the cleaner energy we need to change the uncertain course of our world.