Currently reading: From the archive: looking ahead to our atomic future
Radiation was being considered for use in medicine and even drinking water, but could there have been a nuclear car?

“CITY OF 300,000 VANISHED IN VAST BALL OF FIRE. Bomber crew in black spectacles. Heat felt 10 miles away.” 

Can you imagine seeing that on the front page of the Daily Mail and feeling a reaction of anything other than abject terror and existential dread? Nor me, yet the nuclear bombing of Japan that ended the war was immediately followed by “speculation upon the possibilities of harnessing atomic power for peaceful purposes”, according to an Autocar article printed just four months later.

JT Thornber, one of Britain’s wartime nuclear researchers, continued: “The technique of producing power from atomic energy is already in existence, and its application to locomotion is imminent, in so far as [atomic bomb inventor] JR Oppenheimer has said that the Americans will have a railway locomotive running on atomic power within two years. There is no technical reason why a car could not be running in a like manner within the same time.

“The practical difficulties, however, are numerous and mainly concern the dangerous nature of the materials employed. The danger of an unexpected explosion can be very well guarded against, but the efficient shielding of radiation, which destroys life in a manner far more ghastly than a mere explosion, would be an absolute necessity.

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The fission of uranium-235 produces two unstable particles which decay rapidly into the elements krypton and barium. The minutest particle of either of these would be capable of inflicting on the population of a large area a disease which can only be described as galloping cancer.

“Whether it will be possible to risk such lethal constituents in a vehicle so vulnerable as a car is a question which cannot yet be answered with certainty.

"There is, however, no reason to believe that the genius of man, which has unlocked the secrets of atomic physics and put its untold energy to work, will not be able to devise the protective measures required, difficult though it appears [today].”

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The modern mind boggles, and more when it learns how reckless the US was with ‘the atom’ as it entered the 1950s rich and bullish.

While the military tried nuclear bombs within sight of Las Vegas (casinos held parties for tourists to watch detonations from the roof), scientists worked on reactors to generate power (promised to be “so cheap it couldn’t be metered”) and nuclear medicine (which was already regulated after frequent drinking of ‘energy drink’ Radithor had in 1932 caused a famed golfer’s jaw to fall off), and some pondered radiation for making land arable and seawater drinkable.

Glowing radium clocks had existed for a long time already (the women who painted them had to be buried in lead coffins), so why not glowing golf balls too? There was also a US government PR campaign that advocated using nukes for things like mining and even creating an alternative to the Panama Canal.

The train that Oppenheimer mentioned never materialised; instead, the first experiments occurred in the ocean. The US Navy commissioned the USS Nautilus submarine with a 10MW reactor in 1954, work having begun back in 1947.

The US Air Force, meanwhile, had studied nuclear aircraft, and in 1955 up went a converted Convair B-36 jet bomber, albeit not to test the accompanying 1MW reactor’s propulsion but if enough lead and rubber was in place to protect the crew from radiation sickness.

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Three years later, Ford showed off a futuristic concept car called the Nucleon (tail fins optional, of course), to be powered by a small reactor behind the cabin, giving a range of 5000 miles. Just hope the lead shield’s thick enough and try not to get rear-ended, I guess?

While a reactor has now long been the default in submarines, as they have to patrol for months at a time, thankfully no nuclear car was ever even tested, and the USAF canned its X-6 programme in 1961 – the same year that just one low-voltage safety switch stopped a Boeing B-52 from accidentally nuking North Carolina. And that’s not to mention how close the US and USSR came to annihilating one another. Genuinely, it’s a miracle any of us are here today.

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Peter Cavellini 15 April 2024

And I wonder what they'll say in 75 years time about our World today, if there is a habitable World then.