Nuclear powered Planes, Trains and Automobiles


To quote L.P. Heartly’s 1953 book “The G-Between”, “The past is a different country they do things differently there”. That’s definitely something that could be applied to our attitude to the newly discovered atomic power in the late 1940s and 50s. Within just a few years after the first atomic bombs have been dropped on Japan it seems as though the atom would be the cure-all for all our energy needs with power “too cheap to meter” as was once quoted. Whilst ships and submarines of the leading navies went nuclear, companies put forward ideas for atomic powered planes, trains, yes and indeed automobiles. The first idea of using a radioactive power source for a car in this place radium dates back to 1903 and in 1937 Further analysis of a concept thought that it would need 50 tons of shielding to protect the driver. But with the development of small scale self-contained reactors for ships and submarines in the 1950s the idea of atomic cars was back on the table. In 1958 Ford unveiled a uranium powered concept car called with a typically 1950s futuristic name the “Ford Nucleon” in essence it was a scaled down submarine reactor in the back of the car which would heat stored water into high-pressure steam which will then drive two turbines. one to power the wheels any other to drive an electrical generator. Ford engineers anticipated that it would have a range of around 5,000 miles before you would need to nip into your local Ford dealers and have uranium core swapped out for a new one. The passenger compartment was situated over the front wheels allowing for the bulk of the reactor and a heavy shielding to be more centrally placed and keep you as far away from the reactor as possible. As was the optimism of the 1950s and the naivety of the general public, it was believed that nuclear power would eventually replaced petrol power in the future. Something which doesn’t really bear thinking about if you imagine a car crash returning to a major nuclear incident. Ford only ever made scale models of the Nucleon as they anticipated the miniaturization of the reactors and lighter shielding materials. aAs these didn’t appear and with the increasing public awareness around radiation and nuclear waste, the project was dropped and the models ended up in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Now if you thought the Ford Nucleon was a bit far-fetched, just look at the French Simca Fulga, a 1958 concept car designed by Robert Opron. This was meant to show how cars might look in the year 2000 powered by a nuclear reactor with voice control and guided by radar and an autopilot that communicated via a control tower. At speeds of over 150 kilometers per hour, two of the wheels would retract and it would balance on the remaining two with the aid of gyroscopes. Also in France in 1957-58 to the Arbel Symetric was proposed with either a gas generator or 40 kilowatt nuclear reactor called the “Genestatom”. This would use radioactive cartridges made from nuclear waste however, the French government disproved the use of nuclear fuel in cars and the development that was stopped. Of all the land-based forms of transport trains were the most likely candidates to be nuclear powered especially those travelling across large areas where electrification have not been done. In the U.S. a nuclear-powered locomotive called the X-12 was put forward in a design study for the Association of American railroads and several other companies by Dr. Lyle Borst, one of the early members of the Manhattan Project which had created the first atomic bomb. The X-12 would use liquid uranium-235 oxide dissolved in sulfuric acid in a three foot by one foot container surrounded by 200 tons of shielding. The reactor would then create steam to power turbines to drive four electrical generators. These would create the 7000 horsepower of electricity to power the motors. This was about the same as a four loco unit with each loco having 1,750 horsepower but would only need refueling once a year although it did cost about twice the price of a four loco unit. The whole locomotive would be 160 feet long and weigh 300 tons and would have an articulated rear section where all the cooling radiators and condensers would be placed. But the cost of developing such a locomotive without government subsidies and the highly enriched Uranium-235 together with the huge cost of liability insurance in case of an accident made the X-12 uneconomical and it was not pursued by any of the train companies. However in 1950 Soviet Russia money was not the same issue as it was in the U.S. In places like the North Far, East and Central Asian desert it was thought that electrification of newly built railway lines was not advised at the time. So in 1956 the Ministry of Transport for the USSR came up with a plan to make super-sized nuclear trains which would run on tracks three times the width of normal ones. The train could be used in areas where there was little in a way of supplies or infrastructure to support normal railways and whilst it was stopped it could also serve as a small power station and generate electricity and hot water heating for weeks or months if required in remote locations. The train would use the super-sized tracks to accommodate the extra weight of all the radiation shielding but whilst that might be enough to protect the drivers and passengers in front and behind the loco, the sides and the underneath might still irradiate the environment. The other problem is that infrastructure like embankments, bridges, tunnels would all have to be enlarged for the extra wide track over thousands of miles in some of the world’s coldest and toughest environments. This and the radiation problem put an end to the super-sized Soviet nuclear train. And so we finally come to planes. The idea of nuclear power planes in the 1950s was that bombers carrying atomic bombs could be kept permanently on standby flying around the Arctic circle for days or weeks at a time without the need to refuel and ready to attack at a moment’s notice. Both the U.S. and the Soviets worked on nuclear powered planes. There were two methods of making nuclear powered jet engines. One was simple and lightweight and this was the direct cycle engine. In place of a combustion chamber, the air comes into the jet and in his directed through the reactor core, this would cool the corel and heat the air which will then be directed back into the jet exhaust as thrust. The problem with this method is that if the shielding is not good enough then the air could become irradiated so you would leave a trail of radiation behind a plane. The second method used an indirect way of linking the air via a heat exchange to the reactor, so that the air could not get irradiated but it also meant a lot of extra heavy plumbing and complexity which would make the plane heavier and slower and more susceptible to attack. The biggest problem that both the U.S. and the Soviet faced with nuclear powered planes was getting enough thrust from the engines and the extra weight of the shielding to protect the crew. While no actual flights were made by nuclear powered engines in the U.S. they did use a highly modified Convair B-36 peacemaker with a real reactor to test a distributed method of radiation shielding. By the time president Kennedy was elected in 1961, the direct cycle engine developed by General Electric was regularly making high levels of thrust under nuclear power in ground-based tests. Work on what was to be the WS-125 long-range nuclear bomber had continued from 1954 1961 but when new intelligence from the U-2 spy planes and satellites showed the the Soviets had much less in the way of bombers when the U.S. thought and that the Russian nuclear power bombers just didn’t exist, Kennedy scrapped the WS-125 bomber program in favor of more missile submarine development. But after the fall of communism in Russia in the late 1980s it was revealed that the Soviets had actually flown a nuclear-powered version of a Tu-95 “Bear” long-range bomber 40 times between 1961 and 1969. Under pressure in believing that the Americans were close to creating a nuclear bomber the Soviets flew tests with direct cycle nuclear powered engines. However the engines were inefficient and spewed radiation into the air. The plane also had to fly with no shielding to protect the crew otherwise it would have been too heavy to take off. Although it worked within three years some of the crew had died due to the radiation exposure on the test flights and this was the real Achilles heel of the nuclear power planes. Whilst the engines may work the shielding was still a major problem. Today we could with new technologies which have arisen since the 1950s build smaller and safer nuclear reactors. We’ve already done this a spacecraft like the Voyager probes of the 1970s which are still going in deep space and for Landers like the Mars Curiosity rover 2012. Already nuclear-powered surveillance drones that don’t need crew or heavy shielding that could fly for weeks or months and nuclear powered trains in Russia are being proposed once more. So the future may well glow bright with portable nuclear power and as always please subscribe, rate and share.