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Nuclear-powered concept cars from the Atomic Age

Thu, 17 Jul 2014

In the 1950s and early 60s, the dawn of nuclear power was supposed to lead to a limitless consumer culture, a world of flying cars and autonomous kitchens all powered by clean energy. In Europe, it offered the then-limping continent a cheap, inexhaustible supply of power after years of rationing and infrastructure damage brought on by two World Wars.
The development of nuclear-powered submarines and ships during the 1940s and 50s led car designers to begin conceptualizing atomic vehicles. Fueled by a consistent reaction, these cars would theoretically produce no harmful byproducts and rarely need to refuel. Combining these vehicles with the new interstate system presented amazing potential for American mobility.
But the fantasy soon faded. There were just too many problems with the realities of nuclear power. For starters, the powerplant would be too small to attain a reaction unless the car contained weapons-grade atomic materials. Doing so would mean every fender-bender could result in a minor nuclear holocaust. Additionally, many of the designers assumed a lightweight shielding material or even forcefields would eventually be invented (they still haven't) to protect passengers from harmful radiation. Analyses of the atomic car concept at the time determined that a 50-ton lead barrier would be necessary to prevent exposure.