What Happens in 50 Years When the Oil Runs Out?

Not even the gas discoveries can save us from the troubles to come, as all researchers in the field know natural resources are going to run out.

For some time now, flames can be seen shooting up from one of the drilling sites of Givot Olam Oil Exploration. On more than one occasion, Givot Olam investors have been spotted nearby, doing what appears to be celebrating. The flare is adding fuel to the fire of excitement over the gas discoveries in Israel, which are a genuine treasure worth hundreds of billions of shekels, buried deep underground.

Prof. Arie Dubi:
Moti Milrod

But not even the gas discoveries can save us from the troubles to come in another 50 years.

"Fossil fuel energy - coal, oil and gas - is running out," says Prof. Arie Dubi of the Nuclear Engineering Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "All the researchers in the field have known this for a long time. I'm not a prophet; this is the real situation. It doesn't matter what Yam Tethys finds or what [Delek Group controlling shareholder] Yitzhak Tshuva discovers. It's insignificant on the global level. This type of energy will be gone within 50 to 100 years."

Tshuva's discovery might be insignificant in global terms, but in Israeli terms?

"It's nothing. It's meaningless. Israel must continue for a long time. We're talking about the future of our children and grandchildren. Oil energy is running out, and that's it, there won't be any more. We're already seeing that to extract oil we have to go five kilometers offshore, like British Petroleum. If there were enough oil they wouldn't be drilling in the middle of the ocean, which is very difficult, and we can see the results."

Dubi speaks openly about his concern for successive generations, hitting the table with his fist. "We must think ahead," he warns. "A world without oil is a world without food, and that means a world war in which billions of people will die."

You make it sound like Judgment Day.

"Yes, but what can I do? I do not see a different reality. Will we go back to eating bananas off the trees? No. Wars will break out, people will take the little fuel remaining and fight over it. You don't need to be a genius to understand this. After all, what do people do in times of want? They go and take from what's there."

What about the alternatives that are already being developed, like solar energy?

"Anyone hanging their hope on that might as well hang themselves as well. I have nothing against wind and solar energy, they're great and we need them. But all the alternative energy sources (such as solar, wind and wave ) put together can't even supply 40% of what we need."

Everything we need

Dubi, 65, a father of four and grandfather of nine, has a Ph.D. in physics. He once founded a startup and developed a program for predicting system behavior that draws on the mathematics of nuclear physics. He has published three scientific books to date, one of which has been translated into Chinese.

Dubi offers more than apocalyptic forecasts. His alternative to alternative energy sources, which could save us from impending disaster, is nuclear power.

What is nuclear energy, exactly ?

"Atoms are surrounded by electrons containing energy that we recognize as chemical, like fire," Dubi explains.

"And there is energy inside the atom, which is released when neutrons hit the nucleus of the atom and split it. This fission produces energy. The mass of the results of fission is smaller than the original mass; the difference in mass turns heat into energy. Atomic energy alone can supply 100% of the world's needs."

If we've discovered the ultimate solution, what's stopping us?

"Terrible ignorance, mostly. There is a myth of fear surrounding nuclear energy. Our first encounter with it was at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first time people were aware of nuclear energy they saw 400,000 deaths. But this is only one side of this energy. It's like the difference between fire in a kitchen gas range and a hand grenade: Both produce chemical energy, but the gas at home helps us. We don't fear it or worry that it will explode. It's hard to explain this to people."

The explosion at the nuclear plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 26, 1986 also contributed to people's fears about nuclear energy. Caused by human error combined with lax safety precautions during an experiment, it led to a partial meltdown of the reactor's core and the release of radiation.

Chernobyl was one of the worst ecological disasters of the modern age, resulting, by some estimates, in 30 times more radioactive fallout than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The effects of the global panic set off by Chernobyl are still visible today, nearly 25 years later.

Nonetheless, Dubi says, countries that have overcome this fear have been successfully producing electricity from nuclear energy for years. France is the most prominent example, with 80% of its electricity supplied by nuclear reactors. "France's entire economy is based on nuclear power," Dubi says. "It supplies electricity to all of Europe. If France turns off the main switch, northern Italy won't have electricity."

France is not alone. Nuclear plants provide electricity in the United States, Europe and Asia, and new reactors are being built in many countries around the world. Dubi says the Czech Republic is building three reactors, and even Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia are moving in this direction.

Israel's missed opportunity

Why not Israel?

"That's a tough question. Let's start with the fact that nothing is done in Israel. Have we solved our water shortage? If it's possible to do nothing, we do nothing. Why? It's political. And politicians live best when they do nothing. When they do something there's complaints and shouting. Ehud Olmert went to war and almost got killed over it. Had he done nothing, maybe he would have been okay. In Israel, first of all, nothing is done. Then there's the security problem. People are afraid even when there's no reason. Someone once asked me, 'Say, is a nuclear reactor strong enough to resist an atomic bomb?' And I said: 'Someone's throwing an atomic bomb at you and you're worried about the reactor?' It just goes to show the level of stupidity and fear."

Dubi is convinced that by failing to build nuclear power plants Israel is missing the boat. "There are three types of reactors in the world today: a giant, 1,000-3,000 megawatt capacity one; a small, 10 megawatt reactor, buried in the backyard and that can provide electricity to the home for 40 years. The Americans and the Chinese use these. The third is a medium-size, 200 megawatt reactor that can supply power to an entire region such as the Negev and the Arava Desert." The latter type of reactor can also be coupled with water desalination plants, Dubi explains, and that is the missed opportunity.

"Just imagine a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, in which water is desalinated; we could turn the Arava into an oasis." Israel could also get into the business of manufacturing these dual-use reactors, Dubi says.

How much do they cost to develop?

"There are still no exact figures because we're not there yet. But let's say we had to invest $20 billion in the project, so what? If a reactor sells for $1 billion and you can sell 20,000 of them, doesn't that pay?."

It won't be easy to get approval in Israel for that kind of spending.

"True, but we don't have to do it alone. We can cooperate with other countries. Many countries want to get into this field. It's an opportunity to develop something that would solve our electricity and energy problems for the future, provide jobs to 1,000 engineers and earn a lot of money for the state."

Isn't there a danger that a state could make an atomic bomb using a civilian nuclear reactor?

"No. Even if it were theoretically possible to create enriched nuclear material like plutonium in a civilian reactor, it's so difficult and complicated that there's no cause for concern. Even if you take the best scientists in the world and they try to do it together, they won't succeed. The enrichment being carried out by the Iranians, for example, is a million times easier. Nuclear fuel is enriched to between 4% and 12%, but nuclear explosive material requires 99% enrichment." No one will ever be able to remove fuel from a nuclear power plant and use it to make an atom bomb, Dubi says.

So there is a chance that a nuclear power plant could be built in Israel?

"I've discussed it with many people, including National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau. The ministry's Chief Scientist's Office issued a report saying that within 30 years, Israel will require such a reactor. That is, they believe we must start to act in 25 years. But one of our biggest problems is that the government is oriented toward the private market. It wants to privatize whatever it can, reactors too. But I told the chief scientist that privatizing reactors is like replacing the army on the northern border with a private security company. It's about as logical. An important matter like energy cannot be left to private hands, where the only consideration will be profit. Perhaps a reactor won't be as profitable as they like, but it will give life."

'Disaster awaits'

Dubi is worried about the future of the planet as well as about the disappearance of fossil fuel reserves. "The danger is not only the lack of fuel," he says, "but also population growth. People have no idea of the disaster that awaits us. In 1950, the global population was 2.25 billion. Now, 60 years later, there are 6.25 billion people. In historical terms, between the time of the first human beings and cavemen to the first half of the 20th century, it took us thousands of years to reach 2.25 billion, and just another half century later the figure has nearly tripled. In another 50 years there will be 13 billion people," he says.

According to Dubi, the consequences of that population boom will make the attempts by refugees and labor migrants to cross the Egyptian border into Israel illegally seem like "nothing," explaining, "Millions will be migrating, looking for food. At the same time there will be an energy problem as the population keeps growing. There will be a big war, billions will die and the world will start over."