A nuclear car is something that is not mentioned anywhere today, but this was not always the case.
In the “wonderful 1950s,” physicists of the day managed to build the first fission nuclear reactor while the echoes of World War II and the use of atomic bombs still resonated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The future of energy technology seemed to be nuclear and Ford wondered, why not make an atomic car?
Atomic energy promised clean and safe energy in the middle of the last century, and in a way it did, even though it involved much greater risks than were then well known and therefore not considered. With this technology still “in its infancy”, industries were looking for ways to apply it for their own benefit. This is where Ford unveiled probably one of its most ambitious projects in the history of the company, the Ford Nucleon.
A nuclear car under the hood
Ford Nucleon was, fortunately or unfortunately, just a concept. A vehicle that never became a reality beyond scale models. As its name suggests, it was designed to have a nuclear reactor inside it. But this car is not only interesting for the crazy idea of putting a reactor under its hood, but also to see its design and ideas. The Ford engineers and designers of that time, drew up in the Ford Nucleon some futuristic ideas, ahead of their time in many ways.
The Ford Nucleon, the nuclear car of the time, promised clean and safe energy, in addition to reducing noise compared to a gasoline engine. Speaking of gasoline, this would not be necessary and instead it would only be necessary to change the uranium core from time to time, to be more exact, every 5,000 miles, as estimated by Ford engineers at the time. In other words, pure and simple autonomy.
The configuration of the reactor inside the car was essentially similar to what has been implemented in nuclear submarines, but everything was much smaller, on the scale of the size of a conventional car. By means of uranium fission, the aim was to heat a steam generator that pushed a set of turbines under pressure, which were in charge of moving the car and would also generate electricity thanks to an electric generator. Finally, the steam would be cooled, condensed again in water and the whole process would start again from zeroes.
If we see the photographs of the car in its model version, we see that it seems taken from some science fiction novel and in it four main aspects are highlighted:
1. The front seats cabin: It is the first thing that stands out of the nuclear car, its specially advanced cabin even ahead of the front axle of the car. The reason? A few. On the one hand, you have to make room for the huge nuclear reactor placed at the rear of the vehicle, which was compensated by placing the passenger cabin ahead. On the other hand, passengers had to be kept as far away from the radioactive uranium nucleus as much as possible.
2. The huge windscreen that combined directly with the front windows of the nuclear car left many doubts as to where the doors were located.
3. The air intakes: There are several in the front of the car and also on the sides that would serve, perhaps, to better cool the steam produced by the miniature nuclear reactor.
4. The rear spoilers: Probably more for aesthetics than for aerodynamics, but they certainly gave the car a futuristic look that no other model of the time had.
Optimism and ingenuity
Perhaps the best thing about the Ford Nucleon is that it allowed us to see in perspective the optimism we had as a society about nuclear energy seventy years ago. Optimism and at the same time ingenuity since the real danger of carrying a nuclear reactor in a car, capable of causing a radioactive disaster at any time, was not known.
Now, why didn’t the Ford Nucleon become a reality? Ford depended on progress in the development of small nuclear reactors (we are only seeing them to some extent today), and that was something they were not going to take care of. They also needed very lightweight materials to shield the core, and that was a technology that was not advanced at the time.
Based on all of the above, Ford realized that putting a nuclear reactor in a car was virtually impossible with existing technology. On the other hand, more and more concerns began to arise about nuclear energy, its environmental impact and the dangers of radioactivity.
In perspective, we can only imagine what would have happened to cities filled with hundreds of thousands of small nuclear car reactors moving through the streets and crashing into each other as has always been the case with conventional cars. Surely the whole world would have become a complete ‘Chernobyl‘ or ‘Fukushima‘ by now and people would have 5 eyes, 4 arms and 3 heads.