Atomic cars and nuclear trains – 1950s style

I’ve always been intrigued by the way one novelty or another is often seized by society and, briefly, becomes an all-consuming passion.

I’m not just talking about Rubiks Cubes or those irritating finger spinners. I’m talking atomic. Back in the 1950s and into the early 1960s, atomic power was ‘in’. I mean, really ‘in’. This was the age of new jets, of new missiles, and of that ubiquitous atomic energy symbol which – at the time – meant progress. Power. Advance. Proof of humanity’s superiority over nature. All those things.

XE atomic rocket motor – exactly as Heinlein envisaged – being assembled for cold (non-fissionable) test firing at Jackass Flats, Nevada, 1967. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The risks were becoming well evident to the scientific community – and to officialdom in the US, which led to the formation of the Atomic Energy Agency as a monitoring body. But to the fervent popular imagination the new age of the atom had unlimited potential on every front. Atomic power was upheld as a potential cure for cancer, even a way of solving world food shortages: and certainly irradiated food lasted longer. To the uninformed and for the credulous, ‘atomic’ became much the same synonym for ‘magic’ as ‘quantum’ is today.

That enthusiasm was shared by the scientific and technical community. Yes, atomic anything was dangerous, but it offered ways of resolving energy issues, and engineers all over the world got very, very excited. In the US, atomic power was turned to propelling ships – particularly submarines and aircraft carriers along with the carrier’s escorts. And nuclear propulsion wasn’t just for the military. President Eisenhower asked for – and got – a nuclear-powered cargo/passenger ship, the Savannah, built in 1955-59, complete with a physics lab to monitor the effects of radiation on the passengers, and one of the first  microwave ovens. A barge was built to follow the ship around and receive its nuclear waste, although that didn’t stop Savannah spewing over 435,000 litres of radioactive waste water into the environment during its first year of operations.

The Convair NB-36H with reactor on board – test-bed for the proposed X-6 atomic powered aircraft.  Only the crew compartment was shielded – making it a ‘hot’ aircraft in every sense of the word. Is that a town I see behind and below it?

Not to be left out, the US Army Air Force initiated a nuclear-powered aircraft programme in 1946, and Convair modified one of their monster B-36 piston-engined bombers to carry a test-bed reactor. It never drove the aircraft, but they flew the thing and let it go critical. The crew were safe behind a metre of lead shielding. Anybody who flew into the ‘lethal cone’ behind this leviathan? Not so much.

There was nothing magic about how atomic power was turned to useful energy, incidentally – the whole premise pivoted on using the reactor as an unlimited heat source to generate steam, which then drove turbines. That worked for power stations and on board ships, where steam turbines had been standard for decades. But on aircraft? For details, check out Hilbert Schenck’s Steam Bird (1988) – a hilarious comic novel riffing on US politics and the mind-set of steam locomotive enthusiasts and railway modellers, where he portrayed one of the actual designs and its limitations (on which he worked, as an engineer).

There were even efforts to design an atomic locomotive, the 7000 horsepower X-12, developed by Lyle Borst of the University of Utah with input from major railway manufacturers. The resulting 360- ton monster was patented and, Borst hoped, could be run for much the same cost as a diesel. Others drew up designs for atomic rockets, work that continued to hardware stage by the early 1960s, in which the reactor heated reaction mass and squirted the resulting radioactive material through a venturi. And, lest that seem too tame, another group was working on Project Orion, by which space-cruisers lobbed atomic bombs out the back and rode the blast waves. Woah! A model based on conventional chemical charges worked – opening the way for a 10,000 ton leviathan designed to cruise to Mars or Saturn in a matter of months. By the early 1960s this had been weaponised into a giant space dreadnought,  bristling with atomic missiles – and proudly displayed, mercifully in model form, to the new president, John F. Kennedy.

Lest anybody think that motorists were going to miss out, why no, they weren’t.  Enter the atomic car. It wasn’t an American monopoly; in 1958 the French proposed a concept car designed to circumvent post-war fuel shortages with the help of a nuclear power plant. Simca followed in 1959 with a concept design featuring a futuristic bubble canopy and – you’ve guessed it, a reactor. It also rested on two wheels and was balanced by gyroscopes (if they fail, does the cooling water slop to one side and expose the reactor core? Just asking…)

US designers were hot on their tails. Did I say ‘hot’? The Studebaker-Packard Astral of 1958 could have been nuclear powered – it was never quite specified. Ford were more explicit with the atomic-powered Ford Nucleon of 1958, which looked like something out of Thunderbirds, particularly once the tail-fins were added. In 1962 they came up with a second design, the Ford Seattle-ite XXI, a six-wheeled atomic powered car with fingertip steering.

Atomic power, you see, was the motoring future in 1958-62. You can picture the scene: thousands of cars with fission reactors in every city subub, maintained by home handymen and motor mechanics, then driven at anything up to 100 mph through crowded streets and highways by everyday Mums and Dads. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017


14 thoughts on “Atomic cars and nuclear trains – 1950s style

  1. The part I’ve never grasped about the atomic aircraft concept is how the power from the reactor would actually be used. I can’t imagine they could have lifted enough water to drive a steam turbine for any length of time, so would thermoelectric generation actually generate enough power to be viable?

    1. They did envision steam. That is the astonishing thing. And as you say the issue was the water. Various schemes were postulated involving complex condensing and recycling systems. All of that was heavy and meant the final aircraft designs were not merely huge but also had a terrible power to weight ratio – long runways and slow climb rates were part of the deal. But they could have flown for weeks. The ultimate range limit would have been feed water supply vs leakage in the system I guess, though I suppose tanker aircraft could have topped them up while airborne. Needless to say I am very glad none of these things ever came to fruition!

    1. The thermal output of the fission reaction would have been drawn off, via heat-exchangers, to boil water (circulating in a separate circuit) and drive steam turbines. An identical process to a nuclear powered ship or a nuclear power station. The difference was that the aircraft had to have condensers to recycle the steam, and these had to be way better than those used by ground systems. As you can imagine the whole calculation involved an abysmal power-to-weight ratio, but it was seriously investigated and considered likely to work.

  2. Is the unabashed enthusiasm they had for nuclear energy similar to the way many imagined that the information superhighway would educate everyone, democratize the world and raise everyone’s standard of living?

    1. I was an identical issue. Humans are prone to ideating the new before its actual function and limits are understood. When that gains social traction it leads to things like the ‘atomic’ mania or the ‘dotcom’ boom across societies. Same thing happened with railway shares in the 1840s (among many other examples).

  3. I can’t imagine they could have lifted enough water to drive a steam turbine for any length of time, so would thermoelectric generation actually generate enough power to be viable? It could have been BOOM or BUST for real during that time, Matthew 😃

    1. Sure would have been. That was the problem – the water. Apparently the designed systems used complex condensers to recover as much as possible, but they weren’t perfect. And then there was the problem of irradiating everything around them. Then there was actually landing the things – apparently the risk was a ‘roll up’ in which the aircraft crashed on the runway, crushing the reactor in the impact, thus causing the fission rods to go critical and – er – as you say… BOOM. Ouch!

  4. Then there was actually landing the things – apparently the risk was a ‘roll up’ in which the aircraft crashed on the runway, crushing the reactor in the impact, thus causing the fission rods to go critical and – er – as you say… BOOM. That was the problem – the water.

  5. Then there was actually landing place the things – apparently the hazard was a ‘rolling wave up’ in which the aircraft crashed on the rail, crushing the reactor in the impact, thus causing the fission rods to go vital and – er – as you pronounce… BOOM. And as you pronounce the upshot was the H2O.

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