Once nuclear power was seen as the pinnacle of progress and modernity. And nuclear power was believed to propel future cars, resulting in one of the most remarkable cars ever conceived: the Ford Nucleon ‒ the atomic car.
In a somehow tragic and ironic twist, the nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided a glimpse into the immense power, practical use and possibilities of nuclear technology. Following World War II, the 1950s marked the dawn of the Atomic Age ‒ a period of glorious and naive optimism. The Atomic Age would change the world, it would be the beginning of a whole new era for mankind. Nuclear power would be the solution of every problem ‒ big or small, the mighty atom would take care of it.
Nuclear power provided exciting prospects, it was widely believed that this form of technology was safe, clean and especially cheap. Lewis Strauss, then Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, announced proudly in 1954 that nuclear energy would become “too cheap to meter”.
A few examples of these thoughts illustrate the optimism of those days. Many scientist were even convinced the atomic bomb would render all conventional explosives obsolete and nuclear power plants would do the same for power sources such as coal and oil. Every aspect of modern life would be affected by this new and powerful technology, from food preservation to medicine, from intercontinental travel to your daily commute. It was believed that all power generators in the future would be atomic in nature. Not only submarines and aircraft carriers, but also planes, trains, cars, elevators and spaceships would be powered by a small nuclear generator.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise a wide variety of nuclear propulsion methods were developed as the potential advantages were gigantic: nuclear powered vehicles, ships or aircrafts would rarely need to be refuelled. Many military submarines, aircraft carriers and some other ships like icebreakers, were built and powered by nuclear reactors. Fuelled by the Cold War, the Soviets and Americans were also considering nuclear powered aircrafts. This led eventually to the Convair X-6, an experimental nuclear-powered jet aircraft for the United States Air Force. Thankfully the program was cancelled in 1961 before the X-6 was completed, however.
Fitting in with the optimism of the Atomic Era, the Ford Motor Company proudly unveiled the Nucleon in 1958. This car ‒ a 3/8-scale model ‒ was designed on the assumption that future nuclear reactors and shielding materials would be safer, smaller, lighter and more portable. The Ford Nucleon would be powered by a small uranium fission reactor suspended between twin booms at the rear. The configuration of the reactor would based on the driver’s personal needs and distances to be travelled.
The power plant of the Ford Nucleon would be work according to the same principle as how nuclear submarines work. A nuclear reaction in the reactor produces heat that is used to boil water. The resulting steam spins a set of turbines. One turbine would provide the torque to propel the car, while another would drive an electric generator. The steam would be condensed back to water and reused again to be boiled, creating a closed loop, an almost infinite cycle without any emissions (well, besides the nuclear waste).
The designers estimated the Ford Nucleon would be able to drive 5,000 miles (8,000 km) or more ‒ depending on the size of its core ‒ without recharging. At that time, the Nucleon would be taken to a charging station where the nuclear core would be recharged or replaced with a new one. Ford envisioned these charging stations would replace the traditional filling stations. Can you imagine buying a cup of coffee, a sandwich and some uranium-235 at once?
The passenger compartment of the Ford Nucleon featured a one-piece, pillar-less windshield and compound rear window, and was topped by a cantilever roof. There were air intakes at the leading edge of the roof and at the base of its supports. The passenger of the Nucleon would be shielded from the reactor in the rear. Therefore the passenger compartment had a cab-forward design, even beyond the front axle so it also provided maximum axle support to the heavy equipment and its attendant shielding.
Just as with the nuclear drive train, the styling of the Ford Nucleon also embodies optimism about the future. It is likely the design is inspired by science-fiction of those days as the car almost appears to be hovering. In the 1950s, the flying car was a vision of transportation in the 21st century.
But just like the flying car and the Atomic Age, the nuclear powered Ford seemed to good too be true. The Nucleon was actually never produced. The concept of safer, smaller, lighter and more portable reactors was never realized. The shielding to protect the people inside the Nucleon would have turned the car into a tank.
Nuclear power didn’t fulfill its promise, electricity didn’t become cheaper. The optimistic idea that eventually all electricity meters would be removed, because power would be “too cheap to meter” turned out to be wrong. Very wrong, when the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in the United States ‒ “the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime uses” ‒ went online, it produced electricity at a cost roughly ten times that of a coal-fired power plant.
The competition for supremacy in nuclear warfare between the United States and the Soviet Union made the general public aware of the potential dangers of nuclear technology. The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 resulted in public unease, and the tragic Chernobyl disaster in 1986 raised concerns about the safety of nuclear power in general. The Atomic Dream was over, people finally woke up.
Safety of the Ford Nucleon is an interesting discussion. It should also be pointed out that the U.S. Navy has sailed ships around the world for 60 years with nuclear power plants on them and never had an accident. Okay, there are two nuclear submarines still sitting on the Atlantic floor ‒ having sunk in the 1960s ‒ but this wasn’t due to problems with the nuclear reactors. But the safety of the Russian counterparts is quite questionable.
Imagine millions of nuclear powered cars on the road driven by people like you, your colleagues or the girl next door. And imagine with thousands of accidents happening worldwide every day involving nuclear powered cars, what would become of the safety with the nuclear debris, waste or contamination? No matter how small the chance on a radioactive incident, with millions of Ford Nucleon’s out on the roads these chances add up over time.
From today’s point of view, the concept of a nuclear powered car could be regarded as the worst idea ever conceived by a car maker. But this vision ‒ which could be devised by Homer Simpson ‒ should be viewed in the optimistic light of the Atomic Age. Despite the fact that this car has never been realized, it could be regarded as one the most iconic cars of the Fifties as the Ford Nucleon embodies the spirit of those days more than any other car.