Who killed the nuclear car?

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What if we told you Ford had condemned the combustion engine as a dirty, noisy thing of the past, and designed a car that ran silently, boasted zero harmful emissions, and could drive 5,000 miles without stopping for a re-charge? Given the difficulty they've had selling trucks and SUVs lately, sounds like a no-brainer, right? In fact, they came up with the idea more than 50 years ago. It was the halcyon days of the atomic age, and Ford's new prototype, the Nucleon, seemed poised to become yesterday's car of tomorrow. But as the folks at Damn Interesting point out, it didn't quite work out that way:

The Nucleon's design hinged on the assumption that smaller nuclear reactors would soon be developed, as well as lighter shielding materials. When those innovations failed to appear, the project was scrapped due to conspicuous impracticality; the bulky apparatus and heavy lead shielding didn't allow for a safe and efficient car-sized package. Moreover, as the general public became increasingly aware of the dangers of atomic energy and the problem of nuclear waste, the thought of radioactive atomobiles zipping around town lost much of its appeal. Atoms had broken their promise; the honeymoon was over.

But is the Nucleon merely a relic of the past, or could it provide a glimpse of the future?

A safe atomic vehicle may not be entirely beyond our reach, as the US Navy has demonstrated with its perfect record of nuclear safety. Perhaps one day fossil fuels will wither under the radioactive glare of the mighty atom, and our highways will hum with the steam turbines of mobile Chernobyls.

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August 31, 2006 - 4:15am
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