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.


  1. Here in the USA, there was a sizable anti-nuke movement that grew out of the ban the bomb movement for all the reasons you cited, nuclear proliferation, waste disposal, huge cost overruns, etc. The main thing that the various movements did was to get out these facts. Otherwise the public had to take at face value what the government and industry (or Walt Disney) said about nuclear power. I was active in the seventies with the Clamshell alliance in New England and Mobilization for Survival in the eighties and I think we were effective in getting the message out. I don't remember the smiling sun here in the states. The "Atoms for Peace" idea could never be separated from nuclear weapons and the military justified the incredible stockpile of nukes as a deterrent to actual nuclear war. Do you see a fallacy in the logic here? It's called MAD. We still live under the threat of nuclear annihilation and given the potential for resource wars in the future, I'm terrified. There are so many "what ifs" out there, it's not even worth contemplating. We're stuck with what we got, a very dangerous world.

  2. Hubert missed out depicting the total Energy that came before fossil fuels, side by side with Jevons' and his own history-changing peak curves...

    If Hubert, all in The Limits of Growth movement, in The Club of Rome, the UN and the Peak Oil movement have done that, they would have changed the World, indeed.

    The world would have then realised that not all fossil fuels, nuclear, solar, wind, Hydrogen - will ever be enough to sustain the dystopian Social Contract of our Western Civilisation.

    "The Great Turning Point for Humankind [backward]" has been when fossil fuels and Economics have hypnotised our fellow Europeans 4 centuries ago;

    4 Centuries ago, the Europeans believed that fossil fuels should be burned to create countless systems that are much bigger and vastly more powerful than human's body size and muscle power - non-stop.

    That "Great Turning Point for Humankind" was actually another confirmation that humans are primitive no less than the lowest IQ members of their animal kingdom.

    Only after burning almost all fossil fuel reserves, we could fathom now that - "Energy, like time, flows from past to future"

    Today, when we are bombarded with countless messages like this saying the US is heading to hard times - what about powerless war-torn nations like Iraq and the future they are heading to?

    'Hubert' missed out depicting the total Energy that came before fossil fuels along his calculations on one diagram - and humans should now pay the heavy price.


  3. Current price solar energy (Portugal project): 1,1ct/kWh
    Guaranteed price Nuclear Power Plant Hinkley Point C (erection cost€) : 11ct/kWh + inflation adjustment over 35y

    Any question?

    1. My peak consumption is 6 months a year between midnight and 6 o'clock am, with short daylight and sun low on the horizon.

      Any question?

  4. Amazing.....comments with one linking to a video promoting hydrogen and the other looking at solar at 1.1ct/kWh without looking at energy storage costs. The issue is more complex than the trite solutions pushed by groups enriched by these so called "fixes". Transmission? Storage? Intermittency? Hydrogen Embrittlement? Pressure Vessel Limits? Conversion Losses? Limits on Material Extraction? Depletion of Transition Resources? This is a tiny list of the problems that haven't been solved regarding renewables. And don't get me started on asteroid mining.....

    1. Post comments are not normally where history is made.

    2. Same for you: (50M€) (20.000-40.000M€)

      Do you know why Belgian highways are lighted at night? Maybe try to find out.
      I just compared sales prices of the recent European Nuclear Power Plant with the recent huge European Photovoltaic Power plant. Nothing else.

    3. I accepted this comment, but next time, please try to be less cryptic.

  5. Dear Prof Bardi,
    How can we dismantle the existing nuclear reactors, spent fuel bassins and warheads before we run out of energy and order in our global society?
    I guess there are 500 nuclear power plants and maybe the same amount of nuclear powered ships and submarines.
    I think this would be a very worth-while activity to spend a billion barrels of oil on and a few thousand man-years. Something on par with the ECB covid-stimulus programme.
    Do you have any suggestions on how to make this happen, or at least to start taking some serious steps in this direction?
    Kind regards,

    my mom worked in the nuclear industry in the 1970s and it was a very confusing time. The technical director at the site wrote a book where he had a brilliant suggestion regarding the waste problem in 1978:
    "Either, the waste problem is easy - then we should wait with building power plants until we solve the problem, which should be just a few years.
    Or, the waste problem is difficult, and we don't solve it. In that case, we should also not build any nuclear power plants..."
    He was fired.

  6. AFAIK nuclear power is and always been an illusion, something that's always going to be just 50 years away, because there never was any plan for dealing with the waste for the ten thousand years or more (twice human history) required.

  7. Another aspect is that a huge part of a nuclear plant is for building it (and dispose of it) - running it cost far less than fossil fuel plants. So harder to finance with a short time point of view.

  8. This post incorrectly absolves the green movement of any responsibility in nuclear energy's demise. Had nuclear research continued at the same pace it had in the 1950s we would likely have vastly more efficient reactors (current reactors burn 2% of fuel) and possibly thorium-fueled reactors which have an essentially limitless fuel source.

    It's telling that France today, despite Germany's massive efforts, still has a vastly greener electric grid thanks to its heavy investment in nuclear. Nuclear is the baseload power we need. The green movement may have had good intentions but it condemned us to a path of fossil fuels and planetary destruction.

    1. "Nuclear is the baseload power we need." - For the sake of this non variable "baseload power" the Belgian highways were illuminated at night. Just wasting of energy, nothing else. The "baseload power" is a tale of Nuclear industry.

  9. I agree that when all is said in done, the "what if..." game is just that -- a thought experiment -- nothing more.
    It wasn't a wrong technology choice so much as it was a failure of lucidity and vision. As Tom Murphy eloquently and matter-of-factly point out in his May 18th "Do the Math" blog post:
    "Civilization (cities, agriculture) is about 10,000 old. If we want to believe that civilization is in its infancy and not near its end (i.e., if we are to reject the notion of collapse), then we should be thinking about thriving on timescales of 10,000 years or longer. Even a collapse within 1,000 years would probably be regarded by nearly everyone as an undesirable failure of humanity."

    A "somewhat realistically rational" course of action after WW2 should have been to consider available energy resources, fossil and nuclear, as a one time capital inheritance to equip humankind in its quest to ... to ..ehh ... well not sure about that one.
    *obtain fusion energy and freedom from drudgery ?
    *embark on a Star Trek like space journey ?
    *reach 'Transcendence' as a genetically engineered enhanced version of ourselves so we could find and have a dialog with the Creator (should we find one) ?
    *Or, more likely, just manage to sustain ourselves while still adding to our knowledge and know how; willingly and purposefully reducing our population to compensate the ecological footprint.

    Sounds bleak the way I express it in the brevity of a comment section ... yet the vision I have in mind still seems to stay clear of the truly dystopian realm.
    Pure speculation of course.
    Private property to some extent decentralized power; combined with cheap energy, the two increased the number of human endeavors and specialty knowledge; and global trade diffused industrial capital and its products **just enough** that even poor and already incredibly populous countries like India and China would see their numbers catapulted to incredible heights.
    We walked a narrow passage leading down in a cave to dig some treasure , going down ever deeper, neglecting to check to make sure our rope wasn't starting to fray anywhere; most rocks were getting increasingly slimy anyway, (so the rope should be fine !)and the loot was getting ever more otherworldly ! (even if also increasingly heavier in our backpack)... so what coward could ever have considered hindering courageous entrepreneurship ?
    Then we slipped on the slippery rocks, while carrying such a load that the rope snapped ... and we suddenly find ourselves contemplating eating troglofauna for the remainder of our lives ...
    It's sad that it looks like it was just a dumb inexorable fate that was waiting for us at every corner.
    I wouldn't call it a mathematical certainty, but surely, a damn high probability nevertheless.

  10. Yet another limiting factor for energy transition, and, indeed, all electric energy sources:

  11. I accepted these comments, but, please, next time try to make your point without supposing that the reader will click on the link.

  12. Ugo, three observations:
    1) There has not yet been a significant uranium “pinch” and so we (humanity as a whole) have not really tried very hard to find and extract uranium, unlike oil and gas. A 5 fold increase in the price of uranium will yield more than a tenfold increase in the economically viable reserves and that is with current techniques and known probable resources. It is worth noting that the fuel component of the cost of a kWh of nuclear generated electricity is less than 5% (most of it is CAPEX and financing).
    2) The missing piece of your assessment is “per capita”. The question of sustainability (or at least longevity) of a power source is determined by how much energy we use in total per year, but that is strongly affected by how many people want to use it. It’s interesting to note that in Limits to Growth models the situation is stabilized by a collapse in population.
    3) Most importantly, even accepting the argument that nuclear power production is a) expensive and b) has a useful life limited to ~100 years by resource scarcity, we are told by climate scientists that we have a very narrow window to substantially reduce total GHG emissions (not per capita, but total) to near zero. This window is a couple of decades – i.e. an order of magnitude shorter than the putative resource crunch for nuclear. Everybody agrees that nuclear electricity is low carbon (comparable to wind without backup according to the IPCC). So given the dire straits that we (modern civilization) find ourselves in, sure nuclear power should be on the table as a policy. Look at two comparable economies: France and Germany. Over 15 years (from ~ mid 1970s) France increased its electricity supply 3 fold while reducing the total GHG associated with electricity production by more than half. Germany over 15 years (soon after the turn of this century), has managed to maintain it’s electricity supply more or less constant while reducing it’s GHG emission from electricity production is virtually unchanged. The difference of course is that France invested in Nuclear and Germany invested in PV, wind (and coal).

    Nuclear has a lot of problems, including the ones you highlight, but still we may need it.

  13. According to this nice documentary about uranium mining there would be another big problem with nuclear. Contamination at the beginning of the cycle (opposed to the nuclear waste, at the end of the cycle). If this documentary is to be taken seriously, the main conclusions are that to extract uranium you need to be in one of these two cases:
    - There is no-one far around the extracting sites.
    - People close to mines have no rights.
    Needless to say the latter is more common.
    Given the low efficiency of uranium mining, that is, the amount of fissile material obtained from a ton of mined rock, it makes a lot of sense to think that much more contamination gets lost in the way to nuclear plants than out of them.
    Link to the documentary:
    I really do not have the knowledge to tell how accurate the claims in this documentary are. If it is bullshit I would really like to know.

    1. When the discussion in the video mentioned above starts to touch on the ratio of the Ur found to the total dirt mined *, the background music goes higher and higher - mad.

      This is done all over the documentary, whenever an important bit of information is touched.

      This trending technique is widely observed these days over almost all videos touching on Energy - which inspires the material they are propagating is actually made to spread trauma rather than aiming for finding a solution.

      The trend has been seen becoming mainstream probably 10 years ago, even in the mainstream media.

      The video below seen last decade on a local TV station, is an earlier example where the producer has kept 3 simultaneous audio tracks of audio hammering the viewer's brain at once - the native track of the footage, the track of the [crises actor] commentator and the deafening background music.

      You can comfortably call it - Education by Physical Torture.

      This is how poor and desperate a single-player chess show becomes over time.

      * The ratio of the actual matter that is fission-possible out of that total utilised in a reactor is again minute.

    2. Sure thing the documentary is quite partisan. In the times of "show" the old requirement of looking neutral to be credible has been put away. Now its all about propaganda, no matter if contents are accurate or not. Maybe we can relate it with the "disparition of science" that I've heard Ugo Bardi mention in some video. Anyways, I wouldn't be to hard on this matter and focus on contents.

  14. There are many more "limits to growth" than energy. Cheap and abundant electricity supplied indefinitely across the planet would only have lead us to faster depletions of mineral ressources, biodiversity, arable land, forests, ... you name it, and to exponential growth of garbage and pollutions. The Meadows report doesn't compute climate change and it still convincely predicts a global collapse - be it around 2030 or 2060...

  15. The thought of thousands of nuclear reactors around the world is not a pleasant one. Thank goodness we didn't transition to a nuclear age.

  16. I argue with several younger engineers and physicists regularly who believe nuclear energy is the way to a better future. Most believe that cost of a plant is the only problem, but the energy output over time makes up for upfront costs. They don't seem to care that waste has to be buried, and they love the story of breeder reactors making energy for centuries. They tend to shrug off proliferation concerns as well. When I remind them about how many plants would be needed, and how humans are terrible at assessing risk so that if a disaster occurs it could be very severe, they just mock me. The reality is that there are likely ways to make safe plants, but I have not seen them, and I think that nuclear research is so dangerous and costly that we will likely never get the miracles that the Atomic Age was supposed to have.

  17. The message seems to be that without breeder reactors civilization will collapse over the next few decades or so as EROI of fossils increase. However, with breeder reactors humans could squeeze a few more centuries post fossil fuels to find a replacement for fission, before civilization is faced with a fission material collapse. So if we actually want sustain our fossil fuel derived C21st civilization, then we must choose fast breeder nuclear fission, with all the proliferation and waste risks or face up to the only other alternative: a return to the C14th.

    Wind and solar and wave and geothermal and hydro are irrelevant distractions as they are far too low density to replace or be built without fossil fuels).

    Meanwhile fast breeder reactors are already online delivering electricity.