In the 1950s, nuclear power was supposed to launch our still-expanding consumer culture into a world of flying cars and autonomous kitchens. In Europe, it offered the limping continent a cheap, inexhaustible supply of power after years of rationing and infrastructure damage brought on by the two World Wars.
The development of nuclear-powered submarines and ships during the 1940s and 50s led car designers to begin conceptualizing atomic vehicles. Fueled by a consistent reaction, these cars would theoretically produce no harmful by-products and never need to refuel. Combining these vehicles with the new interstate system presented amazing potential for American mobility.
But the fantasy soon faded. There were just too many problems with the physics of nuclear power. For starters, the power plant would be too small to attain a reaction unless the car contained weapons grade atomic materials. Doing so would mean every fender-bender could result in a minor nuclear holocaust. Additionally, many of the designers assumed a lightweight shielding material would eventually be invented (it still hasn't) to protect passengers from harmful radiation. Analyses of the atomic car concept at the time determined that a 50-ton lead barrier would be necessary to prevent exposure.
Although hope is still alive for nuclear-powered cars – engines powered by Thorium are inching closer to production – it's kind of silly to think that there was a time when these cars were seriously considered the future of transportation. Our love affair with nuclear energy has waned considerably since the catastrophes at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and, most recently, Fukushima.
Take a trip back in time to when creativity and naïveté had people believing that miniature reactions would power our economy by checking out these nuclear-powered car concepts from automakers like Ford and Studebaker-Packard. Radiation suit not included.
After World War II, there was a push in Europe to do more with less. The Arbel Symétric came from a post-war research and development company interested in creative, fuel efficient and electric vehicles.
A brochure from the era highlights "Genestatom," a 40-KW nuclear generator that used a thermal-electric effect to drive a motor with radioactive waste. The nuclear fuel-heating source would only need to be switched out every five years. Among the space age features on the Symétric were swiveling captains seats and glow-in-the-dark phosphorescent bumpers. Unfortunately, Arbel quickly disappeared in 1959 under the weight of its debts.
Ford NucleonThis car didn't even make it to a full size concept. A model built by Ford designers in 1958, the Nucleon would have been powered by a small nuclear reactor in the rear. The car is similar in design to how nuclear submarines work, employing what is basically a smaller version of a full-size nuclear reactor. Designers predicted that the Nucleon could travel 5,000 miles before refueling.
Their vision was to have a completely removable powerhouse inside the vehicle that drivers simply switched out once the nuclear fuel had been spent. The passenger compartment was pushed to the front of the car in order to provide maximum shielding from the nuclear pile in the back. Even so, Ford designers knew that the car could never become a reality without the invention of some sort of lightweight shielding, which never materialized.
Officially unveiled at the 1959 Geneva Auto Show, this concept was meant to predict the cars of 2000. It was to be atomic powered, voiced controlled, guided by radar and use only two wheels balanced by gyroscopes. For some reason, gyroscopes were big around the same time as nuclear power.
Studebacker-Packard AstralThe Astral made its debut in 1957 at the South Bend Art Center, then was shown again at the Geneva Motor Show. This car went all out in Sci-Fi styling. The entire car was balanced on one wheel using gyroscopes. It could hover over water and was equipped with a kind of protective energy curtain, like a force field, that would make collisions impossible and certainly make the Astral's ionic nuclear engine seem a bit more reasonable. Studebaker-Packard didn't last long enough to see the wild future in which this car could be produced, as the company folded a year after the Astral was released.
Ford Seattle-ite XXI
Ford's second atomic car entry was unveiled on April 20, 1962 at the Seattle World's Fair. The car contained a lot of pipe dream technology that has become commonplace today, such as interchangeable fuel cells and bodies, interactive computer navigation, mapping and auto information systems. One technology that didn't make it from concept to reality was its power source: a compact nuclear propulsion device. The car also featured six wheels for enhanced traction and fingertip steering, neither of which seem to be catching on, either.
One of the most interesting things about this concept (besides the atomic engine) was that it was a kind of module car. The front of the car was meant to break away from the passenger compartment, transforming a large car into an economic capsule for running around town.
Cadillac Thorium Powered Concept
Several companies have been playing with the idea of affordable, nuclear powered engines as recently as 2009. The Cadillac World Thorium Fuel concept, appropriately called WTF for short, was designed to last 100 years without maintenance.
Thorium is one of the densest known materials, and it gives off very weak radiation. The fission reaction is weak, it is known as 'sub-critical'. So weak, in fact, that aluminum foil is all that is needed to shield humans from thorium's harmful energy. Instead of building a mini-nuclear reactor, researchers would build a laser to produce heat, rather than a beam of light.
Just eight grams of the material could be enough to power a vehicle for around 300,000 miles, which is further than most current cars will ever go.