November 2, 2008

Hubbert's Vision

We saw earlier that Hubbert had foreseen the decline in US petroleum production after 1970. As shown in the chart below, from his 1956 paper, he saw it falling off sharply. But rising like a phoenix from the ashes was the prospect of nuclear power. Hubbert assumed in the chart a 10% growth rate for nuclear energy, but thought the actual rate might be twice that amount.

The above was his penultimate chart; his last took a yet longer view, reaching 5,000 years into the past and 5,000 years into the future.

This visualization made petroleum civilization "a flame in the night": "on such a time scale the discovery, exploitation, and exhaustion of the fossil fuels will be seen to be but an ephemeral event in the span of recorded history."

The promise of unlimited abundance from nuclear power, so clearly held forth in this vision, was only possible, Hubbert believed, "provided mankind can solve its international problems and not destroy itself with nuclear weapons, and provided the world population (which is now expanding at such a rate as to double in less than a century) can somehow be brought under control."

Hubbert's predictions for nuclear power have fared much worse than his predictions for oil, but he did put his finger on a basic aspect of the nuclear dilemma.

On the one hand, nuclear power offers the promise of unlimited abundance (without emissions!) and is the ultimate symbol of the Promethean ambition to master the forces of nature, one of the great vectors of modern life.

On the other hand, we might blow ourselves up in the process.

That dilemma has been with us since 1945; in all probability, it is not going away.

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