A Modest Proposal for the Ultimate Alt. Fuel Automobile

Andrew Hellard
by Andrew Hellard
a modest proposal for the ultimate alt fuel automobile

I learned to drive in a 1985 Volvo 240. The Nordic boxcar's 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine deployed one hundred and fourteen horsepower against three thousand pounds of Swedish steel. For reasons best left to Roswell conspiracy theorists, the feds recently re-calculated the 240’s mpg: 19/26 (coincidentally the age of the average 240 driver). That’s not bad for rust, but let’s face it: a used 240 is hardly a Prius driver’s second choice. Even so, the humble Volvo recently inspired an automotive epiphany that could lead to The Mother of All Environmentally Friendly Automobiles.

My [non Honda] insight arrived as I was sitting in traffic, ogling– OK, “observing” a Volvo 240 in the lane next to me. Hmmm. What if you ripped out the 240’s rear seats and installed a state-of-the-art, meltdown proof, South African-made pebble bed reactor? That’s right; it’s time environmentally conscious motorists went nuclear.

I realize that some people won’t immediately embrace the idea of a fission-powered Volvo wagon. Luddites. What’s not to like? Everyone knows nuclear power is safe, clean and cheap. Unlike all the internal-combustionists melting the icepack and drowning baby seals every time they open their car’s throttle body, pilots of a nuclear-powered Volvo 240 would release less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than a flatulent Guernsey. Yup. Nuclear is the ultimate alternative fuel.

Ethanol? Please. Put that corn juice in your tank and you’ll get fewer miles per gallon than a Sherman tank, and pigs will have to pay supermarket prices for their feed. Are you in favor of more expensive pork chops? That’s un-American. Besides, devoting America's corn crop to E85 production makes about as much sense as reserving Bolivia's most popular export for insomniacs.

Biodiesel? Powering your car on french fry drippings might work if your local diner is willing to tolerate yet another bum lingering around their dumpster, but try running a fleet of FedEx trucks on McDonald’s goodwill. Hydrogen fuel cells? Sounds like a great idea– until you realize it takes more electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen than it does to power all the electric carving knives in America.

A few rivet counters will point out that a nuclear powered automobile is nothing new. The 1957 Nucleon concept car was [theoretically] powered by a trunk-mounted mini-reactor. Uranium fission generated steam that drove a set of turbines (one for torque, one for electricity). A cooling loop turned the steam back into water. When the reactor ran out of fissionable material in, say, fourteen thousand years, you just popped down to your local service station and swapped it out your old reactor for a new one.

That said, the Nucleon was Ford’s idea. Frankly, I’m not going to get too worked-up about a nuclear powered car designed by a company that tried to sell me an Aspire. And I’m thinking that it’s no coincidence that The International Atomic Energy Agency was established the same year as the Nucleon's debut.

Anyway, nuclear technology has moved on since then. The new pebble bed reactors consist of a radioactive material surrounded with a graphite coating. This reactor is gas-cooled, rather than water cooled. This breakthrough eliminates the most complex part of conventional reactor designs. Needless to say, the Germans came up with the idea. But the South Africans and the Chinese have started to run with it.

I know you’re all saying “Go with the lowest bidder.” But honestly, if the Chinese government can’t keep lead paint off toys that are going to go into Happy Meals, do you really want to trust that your contractor didn’t take a few shortcuts during the final assembly of your automotive reactor core?

Anyway, we all know that the bathroom is the average American's killing field, and gas is only slightly less explosive than TMZ.com. So a few risks must be assumed. And these must be balanced against the potential rewards, which extend far beyond satisfying the California Air Resource Board.

How many times have you looked around your car and found that you had a cell phone, iPod, radar detector, toaster oven and waffle maker plugged into every available 12-volt outlet? With the abundant electricity produced by a nuclear reactor, you’ll never have to choose between Mary J. Blige and chocolate waffles. In fact, you’ll be able to sell spare juice to the highest bidder. I suspect this capability will come in handy if you live in one of those left-coast states with rolling brownouts (which already sounds vaguely automotive).

And just think what a nuclear-powered car could do for football season. Once you get your 75” plasma TV and satellite dish combo running, you’ll be the most popular man at the tailgate. Hey! If GM starts making a nuclear-powered car to run alongside the Volt, then this plug-in hybrid thing might actually take off. And here's hoping there'll be a retrofit for the Volvo 240, so that the old ones can, someday, go out with a bang.

Join the conversation
2 of 54 comments
  • Stuntnun Stuntnun on Nov 01, 2007

    no the dirty bombs are a fact.-us troops have found plans on ideas of how and where to use them effectively--granted it wouldnt probably kill many but it would mess up the area for a long time and scare a lot of people . as for the nuclear powered car they could use the magnetic lift idea from the trains in japan and put it into the road ways and have that powered from nuclear reactors but thats probably a pipe dream.

  • Wludavid Wludavid on Nov 01, 2007

    @ Slow_Joe_Crow Ooh, now I want a nuclear-powered VW Rabbit with the license plate "BUN BUN". I'll probably have to settle for mounting a smaller cannon than the SheVa though.