User Input

User Input: Mr. Fusion

The 1958 Ford Nucleon concept car

In the 1950’s, America — and the rest of the world, to a lesser extent — was positively agog over the potential represented by the nuclear era. This new, compact, clean energy source was surely destined to be the saviour of mankind’s energy needs. Research was proceeding on with this technology at an astonishing rate, and the development of new nuclear reactors was resulting in the technology shrinking almost as fast as they could build the plants.

Those who looked ahead to the future, then, could clearly envision a time when the technology would shrink to the point where it was a personal use item. Surely, at some point, there would be a compact nuclear reactor in every home, and another miniature reactor powering your car! This is exactly the future Ford foresaw when it designed the Ford Nucleon concept car above; one of the potential powerplants for this outrageous design was a “compact nuclear reactor”.

Of course, it wasn’t long after this that a number of developments began to happen. Nuclear physicists realized that the current nuclear technology couldn’t reliably be scaled down that dramatically, and concerns began to be raised about what might happen in the event of an uncontrolled runaway reaction. If you don’t do the oil changes on your internal-combustion engine, that’s one thing. If your car’s nuclear reactor goes critical, that’s quite another matter altogether.

Then, of course, on April 26, 1986, a certain incident changed the world’s opinion of nuclear power forever, an opinion solidified in the last year in the wake of the Japanese tsunami. Nuclear-powered cars ceased to be a consideration.

But what if Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and Fukushima had never happened? Do you think, knowing the potential risks, but having never seen it in action, that you would ever have been willing to place a compact nuclear reactor in your home? Or your car? What would the world look like if we had never seen an actual nuclear incident?

And when will we actually be able to get our hands on a Mr. Fusion?

  • FЯeeMan

    Sounds like all positives and no negatives (relative to traditional nuclear power). Which sounds a lot like the drum being beaten in the '50s, to be sure, but we have 50 years of experience and 3 disasters (of varying degree and news report read) of experience that have helped fine tune the design. I think that if the word "nuclear" weren't such a boogey-man, this would be getting more R&D money, and might be able to significantly reduce the world's need for fossil fuels.

  • highmileage_v1

    it's an interesting question. When will the economics work for a cheap fission/fusion based device? Certain folks advocate Thorium based systems as being safer and cheaper. Fusion? Who knows when? There are some big engineering problems there. I think there needs to be a big (huge!) reinvestment in R&D to take us down this road. Or we wait for Doc Brown to show up.

    • jeepjeff

      Fusion. The Reactor Of THE FUTURE! Always has been, always will be… (I kid… But we've been 30-50 years away from a viable fusion reactor for around 60 years now…)

  • skitter

    While the question was about fission, the title points towards what I hope will be the actual future:
    ITER Fusion Project

    • The Professor

      Yeah, ITER looks to be about the best from the projects that I've heard about, provided that they can stay funded. That's the big problem on all of the fusion projects – $$. The NOVA project at Livermore might get results sometime in the future, but they have to spend a lot of time doing weapons testing stuff to pay the bills. I keep hoping that Sandia will pop up with one of their unexpected announcements one day, saying that they've got it all figured out, but I'm still waiting.
      Anyway, the numbers I keep seeing and hearing are 30 to 50 years for something that works in the lab, with 50 years the most likely. Depending on funding, blah blah blah.

  • sport_wagon

    Thorium is def. the way to go. Too bad the reaction can breed U-233. That scares a lot of people. Doesn't scare me. Not as much as wars over oil and oil sales funding extremist groups worldwide.



    The Ford Nucleon, featuring EXTREME forward control. For when normal forward control just isn't forward enough.

    • jeepjeff

      Thorium reactors don't work unless they are designed to breed U-233. Thorium itself is not fissionable. Instead, you use a starter fuel (U-235 or P-239) to breed U-233 out of Thorium-232, and then once you have enough U-233 in your Th-232, you can just run the reactor on more Thorium (which gets turned into more U-233 by the U-233 that's already there fissioning).

      • sport_wagon

        Oh, got it! I need to read up more on Th reactors.Sent from my iPhone

        • jeepjeff

          Cool. Glad that helps. It is a pretty complicated subject. (If this helps, the Thorium fuel cycle uses roughly the same technologies and analogous reactions as the Plutonium reprocessing cycle.)

  • tonyola

    I think the problems with nuclear cars predates the big and famous accidents – I see it more as a Cold War-era national defense and security issue about putting fissionable materials and potential bomb tech in the hands of private citizens.

  • Number_Six

    It would be pretty easy to rationalize ownership of a nuclear car had we never had a nuclear disaster: it's not like we fear driving around with gallons of flammable liquid stored underneath our kids' seats.

    • The Professor

      What!? A flammable liquid? Under our seats? Christ, that's dangerous as hell, isn't it? People crash cars, you know.

    • tiberiusẅisë

      Under the seats? That's no good. In an accident fuel might spill onto the pavement. What fun is that? No, better put the tank back in the dashboard like a Model A. Fun fact, when the tank is 3/4 full you can see it sloshing behind the glass in the gauge.

      <img src="; width="400">

      • Yeah, underneath the seat is terrible. Thanks to that, my MG Metro has a fuel filler awkwardly located down near ground level:

        <img src="; width="300">

        and a tank capacity of about seven gallons. Seven! It's like it was designed for some tiny little country where everything is right next to everything else.

      • The Professor

        I see that the wiring for the amp gauge and ignition switch run right next to the gas tank. That sounds like a good idea.

        • tiberiusẅisë

          Its wrapped in a little cotton shielding. What could go wrong?

          Besides, once you install the optional dashboard hibachi, a little 6 volt current is the least of your worries.

    • FЯeeMan

      Under the seats! That's a hazard!!! We must start a petition, occupy Detroit, somebody must do something! This is…

      becoming a political rant and not appropriate here… I'll just go back under my rock.

  • Charles_Barrett

    I'm still waiting for the walnut-sized proton micropiles that Isaac Asimov wrote about in the 1950s. They would fit in the glovebox, with room for a spare…!

  • <img src="; width="500">
    Okay, all we gotta do is come up with enough brefascotch to bribe the judges so we can squeak this gizmo under the $500 max price threshold…

  • jeepjeff

    Given proper shielding, I would definitely drive a nuclear powered car, at least once. That would be too cool to turn down. I don't think I'll ever be able to own one, and getting the shielding settled for daily driving would likely make for a heavy vehicle. But I'd definitely get excited about a test drive.