Cars: Nuclear vs Electric

Julian Villalpando
March 17, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Nissan Leaf - The First Mass Market All Electric Car (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Electric cars have staked their fair share of the national car market. In contrast with fuel cars, they offer significantly cheaper tanks, and a clean conscience to their owners. However, nuclear cars have yet to hit the market. Is it possible that they could turn electric cars into a thing of the past? We will explore this market competition in the sections to follow.

Nuclear Cars

In the 1950's, Ford conceptualized the Nucleon, a future nuclear-powered vehicle, that would trump other cars in mileage, due to the high energy outputs of nuclear reactions. However, the design was dependent on the production of a safe and small mini-reactor, which would propel the car. [1]

Reflecting on Ford's concept from the past, we see that he left the production of safe mini-reactors to future scientists. Mini-reactors are, by nature, radioactive, so safety poses one of the highest hurdles for such a car. Current reactors are shielded by several feet of concrete. This would not be feasible for a car. The solution in question, then, would also have to be able to handle earthquakes, collisions of every type, and malicious tampering. Every car would be a potential threat to all around it. This entails the involvement of legal regulation of such products, further complicating the process. Furthermore, the shielding to ensure reasonable levels of safety, renders the car unfeasible because of the weight - an estimated 50 tons. [2]

Electric Cars

On the other hand, the future looks bright for electric cars. Since the release of the Nissan Leaf in 2010 (Fig. 1), large scale companies such as Honda, Toyota, and Tesla have grown the industry into one with long-term potential. The industry also has the endorsement of the government, with $7,500 tax credits for the purchasing of plug-in electric vehicles. Furthermore, the growth of the electric industry is expected to create significant job opportunities in the US, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 1.9 million, based on the various estimates of the industruy's growth. Combine this with a positive environmental impact, which lowers the estimates of future transportation pollution, and you're looking at an industry that's here to stay. [3]


Nuclear Cars pose a myriad of problems. With the unreasonable weight, the high risk in the face of any accident, and the legal hurdles the prior two would produce, nuclear cars do not look to be a viable option for the future. Thus, electric cars can overlook their competition in the transportation market place.

© Julian Villalpando. 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] A. Bellows, Alien Hand Syndrome, (Workman Publishing, 2009).

[2] T. Thomas, "Nuclear Powered Vehicles" Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[3] J. Todd, J. Chen, and F. Clogston, "Creating The Clean Energy Economy: Analysis of the Electric Vehicle Industry", International Economic Development Council, 2013.