Nutty Nuclear Cars

Rosco Allen
February 26, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


In 1901, Fredrick Soddy and Earnest Rutherford discovered that radioactivity released energy due to the change in atoms from one form to another. This discovery would led to the belief of an Atomic Age fueled by an inexhaustible source of energy that would turn the Earth into a "smiling Garden of Eden." [1] As early as 1903, it was hypothesized that radiation could be used as a power source for engines in cars. However, studies on the radioactive material radium in 1937 showed that a driver would need a 50-ton lead barrier to protect from radiation. [2] Thus the notion of a nuclear powered car was put on halt, but this did not discourage auto-manufacturing designers to come up with conceptual ideas for such a vehicle when shielding could be dealt with.

Timeline of Nuclear Concept Cars

From 1958 to 1959 four nuclear powered concept cars were introduced, two American and two French manufactured vehicles. The Ford Nucleon, Studebaker Packard Astral, Simca Fulgur, and Arbel Symetric were all to have engines fueled by radiation.

1957 Studebaker Packard Astral, perhaps the most far-fetched nuclear concept car contained features imaginable in a distant future. The vehicle was to be atomic powered using a "protective curtain of energy" to shield its passengers from radiation. Wishful technology did not stop there with the Studebaker Packard Astral, as it was to have one wheel on which the car would balance and have the ability to hover over water. The Astral is a fantasy car even to our technology today let alone for that of 58 years ago. [3]

1958 Ford Nucleon, a fission powered car is the most recognized nuclear concept car of our time. The Nucleon was to be without an engine instead the vehicle would be fueled by a compact nuclear reactor in the rear. The same technology of nuclear submarines, uranium fission, was to be applied. The lack of technology, both in a compact nuclear reactor, and the issue of shielding have left this vehicle as nothing but an artifact to be viewed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. [4]

1958 Simca Fulgur, designed by Robert Opron was intended to show what cars would look like by 2000. The Fulgur was to contain an atomic engine, voice controlled handling, radar guidance, and only use two wheels. It was a vehicle simply to start interest, and one to spark the imagination of the future. [5]

1958 Arbel Symetric, a vehicle meant to use an alternate fuel source; original plans were to create an all electric car and when technology had improved use a nuclear power source. The Symetric was to be the competition to Ford's Nucleon, and use radioactive nuclear waste as a power source. [6]

1962 Ford Seattle-ite XXI, designed by Alex Tremulis was more for display than a serious concept car that had any plans of creation. The vehicle was a prop for the Seattle World Fair and featured many futuristic technologies that are seen today; computer navigation, mapping, auto information systems, four wheel drive (although the vehicle had six wheels). The Seattle-ite XXI was to run off nuclear propulsion once the issue of shielding was figured out. [7]

Uranium-235 as a Fuel Source

Energy Density = 2.0 × 108 eV atom-1 × 1.602 × 10-19 joules eV-1 × 6.022 × 1023 atoms mole-1
235 g mole-1
= 8.21 × 1010 joules g-1

One watt is 1 joule per second, so we have

8.21 × 1010 watt sec g-1
60 sec min-1 × 60 min h-1
= 2.28 × 107 WH g-1 = 2.28 × 107 kWH kg-1

This is the same thing as 2.28 × 104 kWH per gram or 22,800 kWH per gram.

© Rosco Allen. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. E. Scolve, "From Alchemy to Atomic War: Frederick Soddy's 'Technology Assessment' of Atomic Energy, 1900-1915," Sci. Technol. Hum. Val. 14, 163 (1989).

[2] J. Wood, Computational Methods in Reactor Shielding (Pergamon, 2013), p. 74.

[3] N. Mort, American 'Independent' Automakers: AMC to Willys 1945 to 1960 (Veloce Publishing, 2010), p. 7.

[4] "Model of Atom Car Displayed by Ford," New York Times, 14 Feb 58.

[5] G. Chapman, Illustrated Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Automobiles (Doring Kindersley Publishing, 2009), p. 199.

[6] "French Car of the Future Needs No Gasoline Tank," Popular Mechanics, June 1958, p. 142.

[7] H. B. Lent, The X Cars: Detroit's One-Of-A-Kind Autos (Putnam, 1971).