Alternate History: What could have been

July 9, 2020, 7:39AMAround the Web

In an entertaining “alternate history” article from The Economist posted online on July 4, a turning point in human history may have occurred on March 6, 1974. That was the day that French prime minister Pierre Messmer made an announcement that “may have saved the world from a dangerous rise in temperatures—an obscure phenomenon known in scientific circles as ‘global warming,’” noted the article. The article, What if nuclear power had taken off in the 1970s? gives a fictional account of what might have happened around the world had nuclear energy been more widely accepted decades ago.

Nuclear leads the way: As the price of crude oil zoomed in the ‘70s, Messmer announced his plan for France was to construct 80 nuclear power plants by the end of the 1980s, “and 170 by the turn of the century,” the article said. At the same time, in the United Kingdom, Messmer’s counterpart Edward Heath turned to France to help Great Britain get going with a nuclear build. “The nuclearization of western Europe’s electricity was assured,” the article said.

Then came Jimmy Carter: Encouraged by Europe’s energy direction, U.S. president Jimmy Carter urged the consolidation of the American nuclear industry. “Big engineering companies with nuclear-reactor divisions began lobbying against coal,” the article said. “A small, successfully contained accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1978 convinced the public that reactors really were ‘fail-safe.'”

India goes thorium: In 1985, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) announced that it had built a successful thorium reactor. “As well as revolutionizing electricity generation, the BARC design triggered a shift in India’s fortunes that has led to it vying with China to challenge the United States as the world’s largest economy,” the article said.

Neighborhood batteries: Innovations that followed BARC made nuclear plants smaller, safer, and more efficient, “leading to today’s neighborhood nuclear ‘batteries,’" the article said. “As well as eliminating the use of coal, they have also steadily replaced natural gas as a source of heat and propelled the rapid development and adoption of electric vehicles, with a resulting fall in the use of oil.”

Climate change? Thanks to the proliferation of nuclear power around the world, the term “climate change” has never been coined. Research from the late 1960s, the article continued, suggests that had people burned coal and oil at the rate predicted from the 1970s onward, “Earth would now be, on average, 0.5 ºC warmer than it actually is. By 2050 it might have been two degrees hotter, and as much as six degrees by 2100.” Thanks to Messmer’s foresight and the nuclear revolution that followed, “people do not have to worry about the danger of such global warming,” the article concluded.

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