Where are the Nuclear Powered Cars?
There was a time when nuclear power was seriously being considered as a propulsion source by the automobile manufacturers in Detroit. This was in the 1950s, a time when nuclear power seemed to have limitless possibilities. As it turns out, nuclear powered cars were never made, but the story of Detroit's brief engagement with nuclear energy is quite engaging. Thanks to Stones Country Motors of Rexburg, ID, a factory-authorized Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep, Ram dealer, for their help in writing this article.
The start of the nuclear age
The science behind nuclear power occurred in the 1930s and was the result of many physicists working around the world. In 1942, the famous physicist Enrico Fermi and his team built the first nuclear reactor under the stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. On December 2, 1942, the "Chicago Pile-1" was activated and a nuclear reaction was achieved. This was officially the beginning of the nuclear age. Unfortunately, it didn't take long before the science of nuclear energy was put to deadly use. Knowing that World War II was brewing, President Roosevelt initiated the Manhattan project, a program to develop the first nuclear weapons. And, as we all know, the result of that project was used on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 thereby ending the Japanese portion of World War II.
After WWII, the potential of nuclear energy was directed towards peacetime power generation, particularly with electricity-producing power plants. But it wasn't long before car designers began to look closer at this amazing source of power and begin conceptualizing atomic vehicles. Fueled by a consistent nuclear reaction, atomic powered cars would theoretically produce no harmful byproducts and might never need to be refueled.
The car industry gets involved
Most of the major automobile manufacturers took a good look at nuclear power and many actually developed concept cars. Keep in mind, these cars were simply design mockups; none had any sort of "nuclear engine." For example, in 1948, Ford, showed its Nucleon futuristic pickup concept. In the Nucleon design, the passenger compartment was pushed to the front of the car in order to provide maximum shielding from the nuclear pile in the back. It was never built but the Nucleon lives on today as inspiration for the nuclear-powered cars in the Fallout series of video games. The original Nucleon resides at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI.
Other car manufacturers explored nuclear power options too but the fantasy soon faded by the early 1960s. There were just too many problems with the realities of nuclear power in automobiles. For example, the power plant would have to be large or weapons-grade atomic materials would be needed. Additionally, many of the designers assumed a lightweight shielding material would eventually be invented to protect passengers from the radiation emitted from the nuclear reaction. Today, analyses of the atomic car concept has determined that a 50-ton lead barrier would be necessary to prevent excessive exposure.
The concept is still considered
Although the concept of nuclear-powered cars is still thrown about in design meetings, it's amusing to think that there was a time when these cars were seriously considered the future of transportation. Today, unfortunately, our love affair with nuclear energy has waned considerably. Since the 1950s, the catastrophes at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and, most recently, Fukushima have occurred. This has put a very serious damper on nuclear proliferation.