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The Ford Nucleon, Electric Cars and the Swiss Thought Experiment

Here’s something I did not know existed, even as far as it did exist:

In the 1950s, perhaps the height of the so-called Atomic Age, Ford developed a concept car called the Ford Nucleon. This nuclear-powered automobile was designed, according to Ford, based on the assumption that future nuclear reactors would be smaller, safer, lighter and more portable. The design called for a power capsule located in the rear of the car, charging stations replacing gas stations and 5,000 miles of driving before recharging or replacing the fuel. As is the case with many concept cars, Ford never built the Nucleon-only a model car half the size of a normal car.

Obviously, the most famous nuclear car is the DeLorean DMC-12 from the Back to the Future movies. The nucleon could not be powered because the technology to do it wasn’t plausible at that time – still, pretty neat, even if we are waiting for a flux capacitor.

In the meantime, where nuclear energy and cars can find common cause is with electric cars. These do not have the science fiction twang of nuclear cars, even if they have not yet found much traction with potential customers and remain for many a futuristic notion.

In an interesting thought experiment – in the form of a college thesis – fellow named Cihan Cavdarli looked at electricity demand if all cars (in his native Switzerland) went electric. I suppose some countries might consider mandating this over time, though none have to date. What Cavdarli found is that electricity use would rise 19 to 24 percent. How to power all these cars?

Anticipating the country's phasing out of nuclear power, Cihan looked at two scenarios. One assumes a high carbon footprint, with nuclear energy replaced by gas. The other boasts a low carbon footprint, with renewable energies stepping into the nuclear breach. "This latter scenario is the best fit for electric cars," added Cihan.

Cavdarli’s being realistic here, but what he is saying is clear enough. If Switzerland kept its nuclear plants open – it has five reactors in four facilities – then the country could power the cars without damaging the environment. But Switzerland, which is closing its plants as they reach 60 years old, will need to replace the plants – which will likely be with a mix of natural gas and renewable energy sources.

With the nuclear reactors, Switzerland is almost completely emission free (from power plants, anyway), as nuclear covers 36 percent and hydro 58 percent. And it is all base load energy. That’s very attractive for covering the needs of electric cars, something wind and solar cannot match. This seems a tough circle to square practically – and it’s distressing that it does not need to be squared. Switzerland is in a good spot already, if only they do it.

Anyway, that is, if electric cars become widespread, if Switzerland really closes its nuclear plants and if climate change begins melting the Alps. Lots of ifs – as we said, a thought experiment – with a lot to think about.

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