The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label future. Show all posts
Showing posts with label future. Show all posts

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Next Ten Billion Years


This is a post that I published on "Cassandra's Legacy" in 2012. It was one of the most successful posts ever published on that blog, it was reposted, discussed, and criticized in several places, including a long rebuttal by John Michael Greer, "The ArchDruid." I commented on Greer's comments here. I think it is appropriate to repropose this rather ambitious description of the history of the universe on my new blog, "The Seneca Effect," after I explored some similar arguments in recent posts (The Great Turning Point of Humankind, Long term Perspectives of Nuclear Energy, and "Star Parasites").

So, here it is, just slightly revised and updated with respect to the initial version.

The next ten billion years

It is not surprising that we found the future fascinating; after all, we are all going there. But the future is never what it used to be and it is said that predictions are always difficult, especially those dealing with the future. Nevertheless, it is possible to study the future, which is something different from predicting it. It is an exercise called "scenario building". Here, let me try a telescopic sweep of scenario building that starts from the remote past and takes us to the remote future over a total range of 20 billion years. While the past is what it was, our future bifurcates into two scenarios; one "good" and the other "bad", all depending on what we'll be doing in the coming years.

The past 10 billion years

- 10 billion years ago. The universe is young, it has existed for less than four billion years. But it already looks the way it will be for many billion years in the future: galaxies, stars, planets, black holes and much more.

- 1 billion years ago. From the debris of ancient supernovas, the solar system has formed around a second-generation star, the Sun, about 4.5 billion years ago. The planets that form the system are not very different from those we see today. The Earth has blue oceans, white clouds, and dark brown continents. But there are no plants or animals on the continents, nor fish in the water. Life is all unicellular in the oceans, but its activity has already changed a lot of things: the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere is a result of the ongoing photosynthesis activity.

- 100 million years ago. Plenty of things have been happening on planet Earth. Starting about 550 million years ago, perhaps as a result of the ice age known as "snowball Earth," multicellular life forms have appeared. First, only in the oceans; then, about 400 million years ago, life has colonized the surfaces of the continents creating lush forests and large animals that have populated the Earth for hundreds of millions of years. That wasn't uneventful, though. Life nearly went extinct when, 245 million years ago, a giant volcanic eruption in the region we call Siberia today generated the largest known extinction of Earth's history. But the biosphere managed to survive and regrow into the cretaceous period, the age of Dinosaurs.

- 10 million years ago. The age of dinosaurs is over. They have been wiped out by a new mass extinction that took place 65 million years ago, caused perhaps by a giant asteroid hitting the Earth or, more likely, by a giant volcanic eruption in the region that, million years later, will be called "India." Again, the biosphere has survived and now it prospers again, populated with mammals and birds; including primates. We are in the Miocene period and the Earth has been cooling down over a period of several million years, possibly as the result of the Indian subcontinent having hit Asia and created the Himalayas. That has favored CO2 removal from the atmosphere by weathering. Icecaps have formed both at the North and the South poles for the first time in several hundred million years.

- 1 million years ago. The Earth has considerably cooled down during the period that we call "Pleistocene" and is now undergoing a series of ice ages and interglacials. Ice ages last for tens of thousands of years, whereas the interglacials are relatively short hot spells, a few thousands of years long. These climatic oscillations are perhaps the element that stimulated the evolution of some primate species which have developed bipedal locomotion. One million years ago, homo Erectus and homo Abilis can use fire and make simple stone tools.

- 100.000 years ago. The glacial/interglacial cycles continue. The hot spell called the "Eemian" period, about 114,000 years ago, has been short-lived and has given way to one of the harshest known glaciations of the recent Earth's history. But humans survive. In Europe, the Neanderthals rule, while the species that we call "homo sapiens" already exists in Africa.

- 10.000 years ago. The ice age ends abruptly to give rise to a new interglacial; the period that we call "Holocene." The Neanderthals have disappeared, pushed over the edge of survival by their "Sapiens" competitors. Climate stabilizes enough for humans to start to practice agriculture in the fertile valleys along the tropical region of Africa and Eurasia, from Egypt to China.

- 1000 years ago. The agricultural age has given rise to the age of empires, fighting for domination of large geographical areas. The human population has been rapidly growing, with the start of a series of cycles of growth and collapse that derive from the overexploitation of the fertile soil. 1000 years ago, the Western World is coming back from one of these periodic collapses and is expanding again during the period we call "Middle Ages".

- 100 years ago. The age of coal has started and has been ongoing for at least two centuries. With it, the industrial revolution has come. Coal and crude oil are the fuels that create a tremendous expansion of humankind in numbers and power. 100 years ago, there are already more than a billion humans on the planet and the population is rapidly heading for the two billion marks. Pollution is still a minor problem that goes largely unrecognized. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing to near 300 ppm over the 270 ppm which has been the level of the pre-industrial age. This fact is noted by some human scientists who predicted that it would cause a warming of the planet, but the long term consequences are not understood.

- 10 years ago. The fossil fuels that created the industrial age are starting to show signs of depletion and the same is true also for most mineral commodities. The attempt to replace fossil fuels with uranium has not been successful because of the difficulties involved in controlling the technology. Energy production is still increasing, but it shows signs of slowing down. The human population has reached 7 billion and keeps growing, but at reduced rates of growth. The Earth's agricultural system is in full overshoot and the population can only be fed by means of an agricultural industrial complex based on fossil fuels. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been growing fast and is now about 370 ppm. Global temperatures have been rising, too. The problem of global warming has been recognized and some efforts are being made to reduce the emissions of CO2 and of other greenhouse gases, but their concentration keeps increasing.  

Today. The world's industrial system seems to be close to stopping its growth and the financial system has been going through a series of brutal collapses. The production of crude oil has been stable during the past few years, but the overall energy production is still increasing because of the decision to extract expensive and polluting fuels out of "shales." The extraction of such fuels has been claimed to be a great success, but it seems that it has already reached its peak. The political situation is chaotic, with continuously erupting minor wars. The human population is now getting close to eight billion. The climate system seems to be on the verge of collapse, with deforestation, global warming, increased atmospheric humidity, decline of the ice caps and more. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now over 400 ppm and it keeps increasing.

The future in two scenarios

1.The "bad" scenario.

10 years from now. In 2030, the production of "conventional" crude oil has been in decline for about two decades. The enormous effort made to replace it by liquids produced using non-conventional sources, tar sands, shale oil, and other "heavy" oil sources, as well as biofuels, has been a failure. Uranium, too, has become scarce and several countries which don't have national resources have been forced to close down some of their nuclear plants. These trends are partially compensated by the still increasing production of coal; which is also used to produce liquid fuels and other chemicals that once were obtained from oil. The growth of renewable energy has stalled: there are no more resources to invest in research and development in new technologies and new plants, while a propaganda campaign financed by the oil industry has convinced the public that renewable sources produce no useful energy and are even harmful to the environment. Another propaganda campaign financed by the same lobbies has stopped all attempts of reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases. As a result, agriculture has been devastated by climate change and by the high costs of fertilizers and mechanization. The human population starts an epochal reversal of its growing trend, decimated also in reason of the increasing fraction of fertile land which is dedicated to biofuels.

100 years from now. In 2100, the human economic system has collapsed and the size of the economy is now a small fraction of what it had been at the beginning of the 21st century.  Resource depletion has destroyed most of the industrial system, while climate change and the associated desertification - coupled with the destruction of the fertile soil - have reduced agriculture to a pale shadow of the industrial enterprise it had become. The collapse of agriculture has caused a corresponding population collapse; now around two billion people. Most tropical areas have been abandoned because global warming has made them too hot to be habitable by human beings. The rise in sea level caused by global warming has forced the abandonment of a large number of coastal cities, with incalculable economic damage. The economy of the planet has been further weakened by giant storms and climate disasters hitting about every inhabited place. Crude oil is not extracted anymore in significant amounts and where there still exist gas resources, it is impossible to transport them at long distances because of the decay of the pipeline network and of the flooding of the ports. Only coal is still being extracted and coal-fired plants maintain electric power for reduced industrial activity in several regions of the North of the planet. Labrador, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Northern Siberia still host remnants of the old industrial society. Using coal liquefaction, it is still possible to obtain liquid fuels, mostly used for military purposes. The Earth still sees tanks and planes that exchange gunfire against each other.

1000 years from now. The industrial society is a thing of the past. Human-caused global warming has  generated the release of methane hydrates which have created even more warming. The stopping of the Oceanic thermohaline currents has transformed most of the planet into a hot desert. Almost all large mammals are extinct. Humans survive only in the extreme fringes of land in the North of the planet and in the South, mainly in Patagonia. For the first time in history, small tribes of humans live on the rapidly de-frosting fringes of the Antarctic continent, living mainly on fishing. In some areas, it is still possible to extract coal and use it for simple metallurgy that uses the remains of the metals that the 20th century civilization has left. Human beings are reduced to a few hundred million people who keep battling each other using old muskets and occasional cannons.

10.000 years from now. Human beings are extinct, together with most vertebrates and trees. Planet Earth is still reeling from the wave of global warming that had started thousands of years before. The atmosphere still contains large amounts of greenhouse gases generated by human activity and by the release of methane hydrates. The continents are mostly deserts, and the same is true for oceans, reduced to marine deserts by the lack of oxygenating currents. Greenland is nearly ice-free and that's true also for Antarctica, which has lost most of its ice. Only bushes and small size land vertebrates survive in the remote northern and southern fringes of continents.

100.000 years from now. The planet is showing signs of recovery. Temperatures have stabilized and silicate erosion removed a large fraction of the carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere. Land animals and trees are growing again.

1 million years from now. The planet has partly recovered. The planetary tectonic cycles have re-absorbed most of the CO2 which had created the great burst of warming of long before. Temperature has gone down rapidly and polar ice caps have returned. The return of ice has restarted the thermohaline currents: oceanic waters are oxygenated again. Life - those species that had survived the warming disaster - are thriving again and re-colonizing the tropical deserts - which are fast disappearing.

10 million years from now. Earth is again the lush blue-green planet it used to be, full of life, animals, and forests. From the survivors of the great warming, a new explosion of life has been generated. There are again large herbivores and carnivores, as well as large trees, even though none of them looks like the creatures which had populated the Earth before the catastrophe. In Africa, some creatures start using chipped stones for hunting. In time, they develop the ability to create fire and of building stone structures. They develop agriculture, sea-going ships and ways of recording their thoughts using symbols. But they never develop an industrial civilization for lack of fossil fuels, all burned by humans millions of years before them.

100 million years from now. Planet Earth is again under stress. The gradual increase in solar irradiation is pushing the climate towards a new hot era. The same effect is generated by the gradual formation of a new supercontinent generated by continental drift. Most of the land becomes a desert - all intelligent creatures disappear. There starts a general decline of vertebrates, unable to survive on a progressively hotter planet.

1 billion years from now. The Earth has been sterilized by the increasing solar heat. Only traces of single-celled life still survive underground.

10 billion years from now. The sun has expanded and it has become so large that it has absorbed and destroyed the Earth. Then, it has collapsed in a white dwarf. The galaxy and the whole universe move slowly toward extinction with the running down of the energy generated by the primeval big bang.


2.The "good" scenario

Ten years from now. In 2030, fossil fuel depletion has generated a global decline in production. That, in turn, has led to international treaties directed to ease the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy. Treaties are also enacted with the purpose of minimizing the use of coal. The production and the use of biofuels for industrial machinery has been forbidden everywhere and treaties force producers to direct all the agricultural production towards food for humans. The existing nuclear plants make full use of the uranium in the warheads that had been accumulated during the cold war. Research on nuclear fusion continues, with the hope that it will provide useful energy in 50 years. Even with these actions, global warming continues and agriculture is badly damaged by droughts and erosion. Population growth stops and widespread famines occur. Governments enact fertility reduction measures in order to contain the population. The economy thrives, stimulated by the demand for renewable plants.

A hundred years from now. The measures taken at the beginning of the 21st century have borne fruit. Now, almost 1% of the surface of the planet is covered by solar panels of the latest generations which produce energy with an efficiency of the order of 50%. In the north, wind energy is used, as well as energy from ocean currents, tides, and waves. The production of renewable electrical energy keeps growing and it has surpassed anything that was done in the past using primitive technologies based on fossil fuels. No such fuels are extracted any longer and doing so is considered a crime punishable with re-education. The industrial economy is undergoing rapid changes, moving to abandon the exploitation of dwindling resources of rare metals, using the energy available to exploit the abundant elements of the Earth's crust. The human society is now completely based on electric energy, also for transportation. Electric vehicles move along roads and rails, electric ships move across the oceans and electric airships navigate the air. The last nuclear fission plants have been closed for lack of uranium fuel around 2050, they were not needed anymore. Research on nuclear fusion continues with the hope that it will provide usable energy in 50 years. Despite the good performance of the economy, the ecosystem is still under heavy stress because of the large amounts of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere during the past centuries. Agriculture is still reeling from the damage done by erosion and climate change. The human population is in rapid, but controlled, decline under the demographic measures enacted by governments. It is now less than 4 billion humans and famines are a thing of the past.  With the returning prosperity, humans are restarting the exploration of space that they were forced to abandon at the start of the 21st century.

1000 years from now. In the year 3000 A.D. the ecosystems of the planet have completely recovered from the damage done by human activities during the second millennium. A sophisticated planetary control system manages solar irradiation by means of space mirrors and the concentration of greenhouse gases by means of CO2 absorbing/desorbing plants. The planet is managed as a giant garden, optimizing its biological productivity. The Sahara desert is now a forest and the thermohaline currents pump oxygen to the northern regions, full of life of all kinds. The solar and wind plants used during the previous millennium have been mostly dismantled, although some are still kept as a memory of the old times. Most of the energy used by humankind is now generated by space stations which capture solar energy and beam it to the ground in forms easily usable by humans. Research in controlled fusion energy continues in the hope that it will produce usable energy in 50 years. Humans are now less than one billion, they have optimized both their numbers and their energy use and they need enormously less than they had needed in the more turbulent ages of one thousand years before. The development of artificial intelligence is in full swing and practically all tasks that once had been in the hands of humans are now in the "hands" of sophisticated robotic systems. These robots have colonized the solar system and humans now live in underground cities on the Moon. The new planetary intelligence starts considering the idea of terraforming Mars and Venus. The first antimatter powered interstellar spaceships have started their travel to faraway stars.

10.000 years from now. There are now less than a billion human beings on Earth who live in splendid cities immersed in the lush forest that the planet has become. Some of them work as a hobby on controlled nuclear fusion which they hope will produce usable energy in about 50 years. The New Intelligence has now started terraforming Mars. It involves similar methods as those used for controlling the Earth's climate: giant mirrors and CO2 producing plants that control the Martian atmosphere, increasing its pressure and temperature. The terraforming of Venus has also started with similar methods: giant screens that lower the planetary temperatures and flying plants that transform CO2 into oxygen and solid carbon. That will take a lot of time, but the New Intelligence is patient. It is also creating new races of solid-state beings living on the asteroids and orbiting around the Sun. The exploration of the galaxy is in progress, with spaceships from the solar system now reaching a "sphere" of about a thousand light-years from the sun.

100.000 years from now. About 500 million humans live on Earth - mostly engaged in art, contemplation, and living fully human lives. Some of them still engage in experiments that are supposed to produce controlled nuclear fusion after 50 years or so. Mars is now colonized by Earth's plants, which are helping to create an atmosphere suitable for life; it is now a green planet, covered with oceans and lush forests. Several million human beings live there, protected from cosmic radiation by the planetary magnetic field artificially generated by giant magnetic coils at the planet's poles. The temperature of Venus has been considerably lowered, although still not enough for life to take hold of its surface. The exploration of the galaxy is in full swing. Other galactic intelligences are encountered and contacted.

A million years from now. Venus, Earth and Mars are now lush and green; all three full of life. Mercury has been dismantled to provide material for transforming the solar system into a single intelligence system that links a series of creatures. There are statites orbiting around the sun, solid-state lifeforms living on asteroids and remote moons, ultra-resistant creatures engineered to live in the thick atmosphere of Jupiter and of the other giant planets. Humans, living on the green planets, have become part of this giant solar network. The other extreme of the Galaxy has been now reached by probes coming from the solar system.

10 million years from now. The New Intelligence is expanding over the Galaxy. The Green planets are now the place of evolution tests and the re-created Neanderthals now live on Mars, whereas dinosaurs have been recreated on a Venus where the planetary control system has recreated conditions similar to those of the Jurassic on Earth.

In 100 million years from now. Controlling temperatures over the three green planets of the Solar System has become a complex task because of the increasing solar radiation. Mirrors are not enough anymore and it has been necessary to move the planets farther away from the sun. The statites that form the main part of the solar intelligence now surround the sun almost completely in a series of concentric spheres.

In a billion years from now. The solar radiation has increased so much that it has been necessary to move the green planets very far away. One year lasts now as 50 of the "natural" Earth years as they were long before. But these are no problems for the Solar Intelligence, now just part of the Galactic intelligence. The three green planets. Venus, Earth, and Mars are three jewels of the Solar System.

In ten billion years from now. The sun has collapsed in a weak white dwarf and all the planets that orbit around it are frozen solid. The Galaxy has lost most of its suns and the universe is entering its last stage of expansion which will lead it to become a frozen darkness. The Galactic Intelligence looks at a galaxy that is by now a pale shade of its old glory. The Intelligence says, "Let there be light" And there is light.

(this text was inspired by Isaac Asimov's story "The Last Question")


Monday, May 24, 2021

The Great Turning Point for Humankind: What if Nuclear Energy had not been Abandoned in the 1970s?

  The Italian translation of Walt Disney's book, "Our Friend, the Atom," originally published in 1956. It was a powerful pitch of the nuclear industry to sell a completely new energy system to the world. It could have been a turning point for humankind, but it didn't work: nuclear energy was abandoned in the 1960s-1970s. It was probably unavoidable: too many factors were staked against the nuclear industry. But we may wonder about what could have happened if it had been decided to pursue nuclear energy and abandon fossil energy. (In the background: a completely different concept, that of "holobionts,")

I remember having read Walt Disney's book, "Our Friend, the Atom," (1957) in the 1960s when I was, maybe, 10 years old. That book left a powerful impression on me. Still today, when I visualize protons and electrons in my mind, I see them in the colors they were represented in the book: protons are red, electrons are blue or green. And I think that one of the reasons why I decided to study chemistry at the university was because of the fascinating images of the atomic structure I had seen in the book.

More than 60 years after its publication, "Our Friend the Atom" remains a milestone in the history of nuclear energy. You can easily find on the Web the Disneyland TV episode from which the book was derived. It is still stunning today in terms of imagery and sheer mastery of the art of presentation. The nuclear industry was in rapid expansion and it saw itself as able to grow more. Hence, a pitch for the "Atomic Age" that would have brought cheap and abundant energy for everyone, perhaps even energy that was "too cheap to meter." 

It didn't work. You see in the figure the number of new reactors installed worldwide. It peaked around 1970, and plans to build new reactors must have been declining earlier than that. Already in the 1960s, the enthusiasm for nuclear energy was falling, a trend that would last until now, despite some recent signs of a possible restart. (image from Univ. Texas)

What went wrong? Today, the whole story is usually dismissed as the result of the machinations of those evil Greens who had opposed nuclear energy for ideological reasons. Yet, the popular "smiling sun" campaign didn't become widespread before the late 1970s, when the nuclear industry was already in free fall. Never in their history, the Greens had been able to stop an industrial field that was making money. Why should they have been so successful with the nuclear industry? (by the way, with a campaign that started at least a decade after that the intended target had begun its decline. Those damn Greens even had time machines!)

Reviewing this old story, we see that the smiling sun campaign was not the cause, but a symptom of the troubles that the nuclear industry was facing. Up until the 1950s, the industry had prospered almost exclusively in the military market, producing mainly nuclear warheads. The production of electric power for the civilian market was a side job, just like the production of isotopes for research and for medical applications. The problem was that warheads were being stockpiled in absurd numbers, well beyond the reasonable needs (if we want to use that term) of national defense. 

It must have been clear already in the 1950s that the industry was saturating its market. The only solution to stimulate the demand was to start an actual nuclear war. Surely, it must have been considered but, fortunately, not everyone agreed on that idea. 

But where to find new markets for the nuclear industry? With already so many nuclear weapons around, a possible solution was to move into the civilian market and to expand outside the US national boundaries. In the 1950s, the US engaged in a program that started with the speech by President Eisenhower known as "Atoms for Peace" in 1953. The idea was to disseminate nuclear technology all over the world as a way to produce energy and other useful products. Walt Disney's 1956 movie was an offshoot of this program.

Seen in retrospective, the "Atoms for Peace" program couldn't possibly have worked, and it didn't. The nuclear industry faced a series of hurdles, each one sufficient to stop its growth, alone. All together, they were truly too much. Here is a list.

1. A mineral resource problem. In the 1950s, it was already known (*) that the mineral reserves of fissile uranium, the 235 isotope, were insufficient for nuclear plants to take over the task of energy production worldwide. That could have been possible only by means of the new and scarcely tested technology of "breeding." A few attempts were made to build commercial breeding reactors, but they were victims of the general rule that everything always costs more and takes more time. Gradually, the funds needed to keep developing the technology dried out and the efforts stopped. The best known of these reactors, the French "Superphenix" was closed in 1996, but it was clear much earlier that it had not been a success. No breeders, no atomic age.

2. A pollution problem. In the 1950s, nuclear waste was not seen as a major problem, but it was also clear that a substantial increase in the number of nuclear reactors would have created the necessity of doing something with the radioactive waste. And it started to be understood that dismantling the old nuclear reactors after the end of their life was a long and expensive task. Some of the waste would require centuries or millennia to become inoffensive. And, in all cases, the costs involved were huge and who was going to pay? The question was never answered at that time, and it remains unanswered today.

3. A commercial problem. Electrical energy from nuclear reactors always remained more expensive than the energy produced by gas or coal. So, the production of energy for the civilian market needed to be subsidized to be competitive. Up to 1977, subsidies were provided indirectly by the military industry with the purchase of the plutonium produced by the reactors, used to make nuclear warheads. These subsidies were abolished by president Carter in part because the US had already too many warheads, and in part to avoid the proliferation of fissile material. At this point, the industry was not any more competitive and who would invest money in a non-competitive industry? 

4. A competition problem. In the 1960s, the concept of "hydrogen economy" started becoming popular. For the nuclear industry, it seemed to be a good idea to claim that they could produce not only electric power, but also a fuel that could power vehicles. Unsurprisingly, that put the nuclear industry in direct competition with the fossil fuel industry. We know that everyone tends to defend their turf when it is threatened and we can't imagine that the fossil industry would supinely accept to be superseded. By the late 1970s, an aggressive public relations campaign based on the "smiling sun" symbol had turned nuclear power into everyone's bugaboo. Probably we will never know who financed that campaign, but we know who benefited from it.

5. A strategic problem. The idea of "atoms for peace" was complete nonsense in strategic terms. It just put the US in an impossible strategic quandary: how to stop nuclear proliferation while at the same time disseminating nuclear technologies all over the world? The solution was to quietly forget about atoms for peace while aggressively stopping the construction of nuclear reactors everywhere, especially in countries believed to be strategically unreliable. In 1981, the "Tammuz" reactor under construction in Iraq, near Baghdad, was destroyed by the Israeli air force. In 1987, a referendum against nuclear energy was held in Italy, a country believed to be at risk as an ally of the US because of the presence of a large Communist Party. The referendum forced the Italian government to dismantle four already built reactors and never to engage again in nuclear energy production. Iran continued the nuclear program that had been started with the "atoms for peace" program, but it was sabotaged at every step. From the 1980s onward, it became clear that not only nuclear weapons but also nuclear energy was something that belonged only to a selected club. 


You see that, as usual, when something must happen, you cannot stop it from happening. That the nuclear industry was to fail was written on the wall of the reactors because of a series of factual circumstances, surely not because a bunch of long-haired Greens were protesting in the streets. Yet, it is not impossible to think that history could have followed a different path. 

Imagine that the US military leaders had stomped their feet on the ground and said, "we are going to have breeders in America." Imagine that sufficient funds could have been funneled into the task. Finally, imagine that the technological problems of breeders could have been solved. At that point, the US and the whole Western World could have switched to a largely nuclearized energy system, possibly including a hydrogen-powered transportation system. It is unlikely that China and the Soviet Union would not have followed along the same path. And it would have been difficult to stop nuclear technology from diffusing in other regions of the world. It would have been the "Atomic Age" that was dreamed of in the 1950s.

What kind of world would that be, today? Theoretically, we would much more energy than we have today, at least for the elite countries that had embarked on the nuclearization of their economies. And this energy could be produced without emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, so that Earth's climate would not have been affected, at least not directly.

But we would have faced a completely different range of problems. With the Atomic Age, the amount of fissile material available in the world would have been multiplied by one or two orders of magnitude and it is almost unthinkable that it would stay forever out of the hands of the many petty tyrants, fanatical religious leaders, and assorted psychopaths who tend to crave for that kind of things. 

Consider also that nuclear plants (especially breeders) offer a delicious target for military and terrorist attacks not just for their strategic value but also for the possibility of spreading radioactive material around and making large areas of the targeted territory uninhabitable. So, you may imagine what kind of problems we could have today. Even for a limited nuclear exchange, the "nuclear winter" scenario, proposed in the 1990s, implied a cooling period sufficiently long to exterminate most of humankind. The idea was heavily criticized, but never really debunked. And that without mentioning the possibility of the mismanagement of the nuclear wastes and the fact that plutonium is among the most poisonous substances known to humans.

Consider also another problem, much bigger, that lurks unrecognized in the shadows for the atomic age scenario. In the 1950s, Marion King Hubbert was working on oil depletion and in 1956 he proposed his famous "bell shaped" production curve, later known as "peak oil." Hubbert also proposed that nuclear energy would replace fossil fuels. But note in the figure below how, in his view, nuclear energy would not have prevented "peak oil" from taking place at about the same time that was foreseen without nuclear energy.  Hubbert understood very well that the enormous effort needed to build the new nuclear infrastructure would have had to be based on fossil fuels, and so would not have reduced their production.

Now, note something in the image: whereas fossil fuels follow a bell-shaped production curve, nuclear energy reaches a plateau and remains there for thousands of years. Why?

Hubbert must have been well aware that the "thousands of years of supply" that the nuclear industry often claimed for the mineral reserves of uranium were possible only if production were not to increase over a certain rate. But what would have stopped people from increasing energy production even more? You think that people would have been thinking, "now we have enough" and then spend their time relaxing? One world: pyramids. 

Why wouldn't Plutonium follow the same trajectory of oil, a "bell-shaped" curve, peaking and starting to decline afterward? (Want to mention thorium? Sure, but it is another finite resource, it doesn't change the concept). So, it would grow, peak, and then decline.

It is impossible to calculate when "peak plutonium" could take place in a fully nuclearized world. It would depend on many factors, the available resources, the efficiency of the breeding technology, the energy return on investment, the cost of waste management, and more. In a previous post, I made some very rough estimates: if the plutonium-based economy were to be run on the known laws of the economy, it is hard to imagine that the reserves of fissionable materials would last for more than a few centuries, possibly even less than a century. (Fusion? Sure, let's wait 50 more years and....).

And here we stand. Playing the "what if" game is a lot of fun, but we should remember that we are talking about the dream expressed by Walt Disney's "Our friend, the Atom," A dream that, likely, had the same chances to turn into reality as others proposed by Walt Disney, such as for a poor country girl to marry a prince. And it is not at all guaranteed that the country girl would have a happy marriage!

We don't know if a plutonium-based economy ever was something more than a dream. Today, it is too late to turn back to a moment in history that is past and gone, although it is not impossible that someone will want to try to resurrect a dream that could easily turn into a nightmare. 

What we know is that, as always, we stand at the intersection of past and future, in that fleeting moment we call "present." From now on, infinite possibilities branch out. Those leading to a peaceful and prosperous future are few, maybe there are none. But we must plod on. It is a journey that will lead us somewhere, even though we can't say where.


(*) The story of the assessment of the uranium reserves is fascinating in itself. Palmer Putnam published in 1953 the book "Energy in the Future" where he carried out one of the first quantitative assessments of the potential of fission energy in terms of mineral reserves of uranium  See below the relevant paragraph

Note the key words: "assuming breeding." That is, the assumption is that energy can be extracted from both isotopes of uranium, the 235 and the 238. The result is 1700 Quads, or about 100 times the energy content of the (then) known oil and gas reserves. 
You understand why in the 1950s it became obvious that breeding plutonium was absolutely necessary for a nuclear-based economy. If only U235 were to be "burned," then the resource would be suddenly reduced to 0.72% of the total, that is to 12 Quads. Assuming an optimistic 30% efficiency (but, really, way too optimistic), the total obtainable would be 4 Quads. Earlier on, Putnam had established that the world would require more than 70 Q of energy by the year 2000. No breeding, no atomic age. Simple.