When the world was first introduced to nuclear energy with the arrival of nuclear weapons, it was immediately apparent that the splitting of the atom was going to usher in a revolution in energy. As such, scientists were keen to find new ways that they could harness the potential for both military and civilian purposes. But not all of them were good ideas. In fact, after going through this list, we’re sure you’ll agree that some of these nuclear notions were just downright nuts.
9. The Nuclear Rifle
Nicknamed the Davey Crocket and developed in the ’60s during the Cold War, the M65 recoilless rifle looked much more like a bazooka than an actual rifle. It was typically mounted on a tripod or Jeep and could launch a 51 pound nuclear warhead at a target located up to three miles away. But, as it turned out, three miles just wasn’t far enough to escape the radioactive cloud produced by the payload’s detonation. Meaning, if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, your forces would end up getting irradiated by the fallout. Thus, the age of portable nuclear warfare came to an abrupt end.
8. The Nuclear Tank
The Cold War was all about the threat of a nuclear attack. To help ensure the United States would have the upper hand on the Soviets in the nuclear arms race, Chrysler developed a tank that was specially designed to hold up against a nuclear strike. Known as the TV-8, the tank was built so that all the critical components, including the engine, crew, and all armaments, were housed within the abnormally large turret which was completely sealed off from the environment. The turret was also unable to rotate, which meant that the crew had to reorient the entire tank to aim and switch targets.
Although the TV-8 was originally outfitted with a conventional power plant, the engineers later looked into mounting a small nuclear fission reactor in the back of the turret and making the tank electrically powered. But, after evaluating the design, the U.S. Army concluded that the TV-8 provided few advantages over conventional tanks designs, and the project lost support.
7. The Nuclear Space Probe
To explore the frozen water-rich moons of Jupiter like Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory once proposed the development of a nuclear-powered probe they named the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, or JIMO for short. The orbiter was intended to be a practical application of NASA’s Project Prometheus, which had the goal of developing nuclear-powered systems for long-duration space missions.
Supplied by a nuclear power source, the JIMO would have had much more available electrical power than the generation of NASA probes being launched in the early 2000s. This would have greatly extended the probe’s life and allowed it to explore all three of the target moons in a single mission. However, when it came time to allocate funds, NASA realized that the JIMO project was a little more ambitious, and therefore costly, than they had initially thought. Consequently, the money was instead put into less expensive methods of exploring the moons.
6. The Nuclear Airplane
Following World War II, and before the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the U.S. government invested heavily in bombers that were capable of delivering nuclear payloads. But the bombers had a limited flight range, and aerial refuelling wasn’t practical in all situations. In order to solve this problem, the U.S. Army Air Force invested in testing the idea of placing a nuclear reactor on board a bomber.
Nicknamed the “Crusader,” the Convair NB-36H carried a small nuclear reactor that was intended to give it unlimited range. The plane was constructed from a modified B-36 and included a number of safety features designed to protect the crew from radiation. The cockpit was specially made with radiation shielding, and engineers also placed large water tanks around the reactor to help absorb any escaping radiation. There was even a special hotline installed that could be used to contact the President directly if it looked the plane was in danger of crashing. But despite a the heavy investment in testing, advances in conventional airplane technology and in-flight refuelling rendered the nuclear bomber unnecessary.
5. The Nuclear Icebreaker
Icebreakers are special ships used to break up the ice in waterways so that other ships can travel through them. Keeping shipping lanes open is especially important for northern countries like Russia, which is why the country developed a nuclear icebreaker to overcome the fuel limitations of conventional icebreakers.
Named the Lenin, the nuclear icebreaker was also the first nuclear surface ship and it served as a testament to both Soviet engineering and ability to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The ship made its maiden voyage in 1959 and performed exceptionally, prompting Soviet shipbuilders to construct an entire fleet of nuclear icebreakers.
The Lenin was finally retired after 50 years of operation. It remains one of the most influential ships of all time and now rests in Murmansk, Russia, where it serves as a historical museum.
4. Nuclear Oil Mining
In the late 1950s, the Canadian government was looking to find the best way to extract the bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands. Dr. Manley Natland, a passionate geologist working for the Richfield Oil Corporation, proposed the idea of harnessing the power of a nuclear explosion. He believed that the vaporizing power of a nuclear explosion could liberate the bitumen from the oil sands so that it could then be pumped freely.
Although Natland received the go-ahead for the Atomic Energy Commission, his proposal was met skepticism over its environmental impact, especially concerning the pollution of groundwater. The idea was ultimately put to rest when the Canadian government made the decision to support nuclear nonproliferation.
Similar attempts have been made since, most notably Project Gasbuggy in 1967.
3. Nuclear Landmines
Perhaps the strangest of the all the wartime weapons that were given the nuclear treatment, Atomic Demolition Munitions (ADMs) were basically nuclear land mines. They were meant to pack enormous destructive potential while still being compact enough to fit inside a soldier’s backpack. The intention was that they would be used by special forces who would be expected to parachute behind enemy lines and use the small nuke to destroy key infrastructure. It was thought that successful detonations would also have the benefit of slowing the advance of enemy forces who would, for a time, be unable to move through the area without exposing themselves to harmful radiation. Furthermore, the ADMs were intended to perform non-military functions as well, including mining, demolition, and earthmoving. However, apart from testing, they were never used in either capacity.
2. The Household Nuclear Reactor
Originally developed by Chicago entrepreneur Lewis Larsen, the low-energy nuclear reactor (LENR) was intended to supply homes with all the power they needed without any harmful emissions. Design specifications for the LENR put it at roughly the size of a typical microwave oven and, according to Larsen, all the technology to build it is in place, it’s just a matter of engineering it into existence.
Recently, NASA began research into using LENRs to power homes and spacecrafts. Physicist Joseph Zawodny is leading a NASA team with the appointed task of developing nuclear reactors that are safe for household use. They even have the support of the U.S. Department of Energy who started financially contributing to the project in 2013. However, it remains to be seen whether or not this plan will pay off or be overshadowed by rise of solar-powered homes.
1. The Nuclear Car
In the 1950s, before we were aware of all the associated dangers, nuclear power was all the rage. The technology promised an entirely new generation of consumer products powered by a clean, long-lasting energy source. Much like the antiquated future envisioned in the Fallout video games, designers and engineers thought they could incorporate nuclear power into almost every facet of daily life. Although many of their ideas turned out to be completely unfeasible, automotive company Ford soldiered on and went so far as to produce a scale model of their version of the nuclear-powered car.
Called the Ford Nucleon, the car saw the common internal combustion engine replaced with a steam engine powered by the uranium fission of a small nuclear reactor situated in the rear of the vehicle. It was estimated that, with nuclear power, the car would be able to travel up to 5,000 miles before the reactor needed to be recharged. But instead of trying to figure out a way to refuel the reactor, Ford planned to supplant gas stations with recharging stations that would simply replace old reactors with new ones. Of course, this was all based on the assumption that the technology to make compact nuclear reactors would soon be available. Which, as it turns out, it wasn’t. The engineers eventually came to their senses anyways realizing that it would be pretty dangerous to have cars speeding around U.S. highways with mini nuclear reactors on board.