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Master of Scaremonies
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The "Deadlies": Atomic Automobile

In our competition to find "Deadlies" -- technology which may be feasible but still looks like a really bad idea -- there have been plenty of atomic nominations. In the 50's and 60's there were plans for nuclear powered ships, trains, aircraft, missiles and spaceships which have attracted nominations for the "Deadlies." But nobody has mentioned the Atomic Automobile yet.

These days we're a bit wary about nuclear power, but back in it's heyday it was selling like (radioactive) hot cakes. Nuclear power was the future, it was cleaner than fossil fuels, endlessly abundant and so inexpensive that Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, forecast that: "It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter."

Perhaps the original source of atomic bad ideas was the Atoms For Peace initiative, a deliberate attempt to turn nuclear power away from military uses and harness it in constructive ways. The intentions may have been good -- or not. In Britain the public were persuaded that the Calder Hall atomic power plant would provide them with cheap energy, and it was not until 1961 that the government admitted that its main purpose was to manufacture plutonium for nuclear weapons. In the US, the government tried hard to convince people that atomic was good. (The full story is told in the chapter on Ultimate Power in my book Weapons Grade).

So the idea spread that everything which used power would be atomic in the future. The obvious end point of this is domestic atomic power for everyone. In 1940 Dr RM Langer, a physicist at Cal. Tech, predicted that home nuclear power plants for heating, lighting and electricity would arrive "in our own time," and that a nuclear plant "the size of a typewriter" would power cars.

So when the Atomic Age really got under way in 1958 it was no surprise when the Ford Nucleon concept car was rolled out. This had the pasenger compartment placed well forward to keep away from the nuclear plant at the back. The company suggested that the Nucleon would travel 5,000 miles before needing to have the atomic core replaced at a charging station, the future equivalent of a gas station. Unsurprisingly enough, the car never went beyond concept stage.

Atomic car? You'll be wanting the additional "radiation leak and massive area contamination" insurance cover for that, and maybe some lead-lined underwear. No, I think we should leave atomic-powered cars to Batman.
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