Culture

Plus ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Voiture à Moteur Nucléaire

William Clay Ford Sr. with the Ford Nucleon concept

News about Laser Power Systems’ proposed radioactive thorium based steam turbine powered car reminded me that this isn’t the first time that nuclear powerplants in cars have been discussed. In the late 1950s, Ford made a big publicity splash claiming that they were “researching” the notion of powering cars with small nuclear reactors. The US Navy’s then new and highly successful nuclear submarines were in the public’s mind and Ford said they hoped to be able to miniaturize the reactor and steam turbines used in those subs enough to be able to fit it in the trunk of a typical American car. Though LPS’ proposed nuke car would not have a reactor but would directly use the heat that thorium can generate to boil steam for a turbine, it’s not too far removed from the Nucleon concept. The Nucleon never made it past 3/8th scale models, and it’s not clear if Laser Power Systems will ever make a functioning powerplant, but it still got me thinking. For generations the car companies have been making outlandish, pie in the sky concept cars, with features that can seem like science fiction for years after those concept cars are retired from the show circuit. The thing is, though, that if you wait long enough, many of those features actually start showing up on production cars, or like the Nucleon, those concepts are reexamined in the light of more modern technology.

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