Reader Weekly
Apr. 1, 2006

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articles by Tim Winker.

That Atomic Car you were Promised

The future is taking shape in a most unlikely place near Duluth. A century old, dove-tailed machine shed on a ramshackle farmstead south of Esko holds the work of Jorki Jetsonen (pronounced YOR-kee YET-so-nen), a second generation Finnish-American inventor who also considers himself an environmentalist.

Jetsonen is working on a project that could free America from dependence on foreign oil, eliminate the problem of how to dispose of the expired fuel rods that were once the heart of nuclear power generating plants, and reduce emissions that add to global warming. Jetsonen is developing an atomic powered car.

Though he would not give full details about his atomic auto or the materials he used, nor let us take any photos of the drivetrain, we were able to get a brief description of how the process works. It's similar to today's hybrid-electric cars, but uses an atomic powered steam turbine to generate the electricty instead of an internal combustion engine.

The spent uranium fuel rods from nuclear power plants still have some radioactive energy which is why disposal is so difficult. Jetsonen has developed a process to slice the fuel rods into disks about the size of a hockey puck. That amount of radioactivity is enough to provide energy for the auto's powerplant for about a year.

When asked about how the powerplant works, Jetsonen replied, "Iss yust like pig newkleer plant, putt smaller." The reactor is a 1/30th scale replica of the one that powers the Urho-class Finnish icebreakers. Like any other nuclear power generating plant, the uranium produces heat through fission in the reactor. That heat is used to turn water to steam which powers a small steam turbine, which in turn drives a generator to produce electricity. That electricity then powers an electric motor that provides the propulsion to the wheels. The steam is condensed back to water in a large radiator-like intercooler behind the grille.

What is surprising is that all of this machinery fits into the same space as a regular fuel tank, an internal combustion engine and a transmission. At the moment, Jetsonen's atomic powerplant is hidden away in a normal looking Saab hatchback. The nuclear reactor is in the cavernous rear compartment, just in front of and above the rear axle, and the steam turbine and electric motor are in the engine compartment. The large hatch provides easy access to the reactor for annual replacement of the uranium source.

Since the power to the wheels comes from an electric motor, there is no need for a multi-gear transmission. "Instet of kearpox, motor iss konnektet to akkselss wit sprokketts ant shain," said Jetsonen. The sprocket and chain set were sourced from Spacely Sprokkett OY in Jokela, Finland.

Jetsonen Mobile
Artist's concept of Jorki Jetsonen's Atomic Car
He is working on a more modern vehicle to house his atomic powerplant, pictured here.

The radioactive uranium disk is surrounded by a shielded container in the vehicle and does not emit any radiation to the outside. A "new" disk arrives in a lead shielded package with a plastic outer box, sort of like a VHS tape cassette. It is installed much like a cassette into the pressure vessel that contains the reactor core. The radioactive shield is pierced once the pressure vessel is sealed.

The expired uranium disk is truly spent, with virtually no radiation remaining. Jetsonen says his sons dip the old disks in melted plastic and use them for playing hockey. His wife is saving them to use under the furniture legs in their living room.

Nothing is consumed via burning in the atomic process (like gasoline is in an internal combustion engine) so there are no emissions. Another advantage of this technology is that the powerplant runs continuously, meaning that the car can be plugged into the house to generate electricity for home use as well. A special pipe fitting connects to a hose on the Jetsonen family sauna stove, producing instant heat for the weekly sweat bath.

Since the steam is generated at the rear and the turbine is in the front, the steam is piped through the passenger compartment. It is well insulated for the summer months, but it can be regulated by a valve to make the car quite toasty in the winter. Jorki has added extra piping under the seats to warm them up as well, and has plans to install a steam-heated oven in the car to cook perunamakkara and kalamojakka while on the road.

Jetsonen says he could have his atomic-powered vehicle ready for market in the next five years. At the moment, however, he is staring at a mountain of paperwork required by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commision and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and that process could take decades.