Ruth Brandon: Time to jump on the nuclear bandwagon?

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Whoever wins the nuclear power battle - whether it's the can't-do-without-its or the over-my-dead-body brigade - no one now pretends that nukes are a good thing. It's more a question of which possible catastrophe to choose.

Ah, the dear dead days! Who now remembers power too cheap to meter? In the 1950s, everything modern was atomic. I even own a Fifties Atomic espresso machine - in aluminium, naturally, with domes. But that's just a metaphor, or so I sincerely hope (better check the washers...).

At Ford, though, they planned the real thing, in the shape of the 1958 Ford Nucleon concept car. Instead of a polluting internal combustion engine, it was powered by a small nuclear reactor in the boot, whose fuel rods could be exchanged for new ones when they ran out. Pictures of this super-modern baby show it with and without tailfins, and sprayed an appropriately glowing red. That suitcase-shaped bump at the back is the dinky nuclear reactor, with the spare wheel positioned conveniently on top.

The attraction was not just modernity, but range: it was calculated that one load of nuclear fuel should keep the car powered for 5,000 miles, which, for the average user, would mean refuelling perhaps three times a year. That's more of an aircraft range, and indeed, between 1946 and 1961, the US Department of Defense spent $7bn on nuclear-fuelled planes that could remain airborne for weeks.

Between July 1955 and March 1957, a B-36 bomber, converted to carry a 3-megawatt air-cooled reactor in its aft bomb bay, made 47 flights over Texas and New Mexico. One big difficulty, though, was the weight of the radiation shielding. Although the crew compartment had a lead shield, with 10in-12in-thick lead-glass windows, and water pockets behind the crew compartment and in the fuselage that also absorbed radiation, the reactor itself was unshielded. That must have presented a few problems for the ground crew.

I've seen no evidence that Ford actually tried to build the Nucleon. Indeed, the fact that this dreamboat even made it as far as being an official concept-car shows the dominance of design departments at this period. This was the age of the inimitable Harley Earl, creator of cars for the stars and begetter of the tailfin. Unlike the early days, when cars were made by engineers, by the 1950s the design studios were firmly in the driving seat (so to speak). They prepared the new models, which were only then passed on to the engineers for conversion into real cars. And this was the atomic age. If you could have an atomic coffee-machine, why not an atomic car? Doubtless, when the Nucleon drawings made it to the engineers, they muttered, "Have you thought about the weight? All that lead? What if it crashes?". But that's engineers for you.

However, although logistics spared us the prospect of roads filled with potential nuclear bombs, to say nothing of nationwide networks of nuclear refuelling stops, the atomic car remains a reality. Anyone who has driven in France will be familiar with those annoying little electric cars, whose maximum speed is about 40kmph. They're nuclear! France, with few hydrocarbon resources, boasts an almost wholly nuclear-powered electric grid. And the French are unusually keen on electric cars.

The combination of shrinking oil reserves and climate change offers little comfort to drivers (or, indeed, anyone else). But given that one of the big objections to electric cars has always been that they merely displace pollution from the road to the power station, it's possible that here, at last, is a real solution - to one problem, at least. Its worst enemies have to admit that nuclear power is, in terms of climate change, non-polluting. Should Blair get his way, all we need to do is move everyone into electric cars. Then we'll only have waste disposal to worry about.

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