When Sir Harold Kroto talks about energy, his blood pressure rises. 'Humanity has exploited oil with all the restraint of a fox in a chicken house,' said the chemistry Nobel laureate of 1996. He was talking with five fellow laureates in the German town of Lindau recently, during a panel discussion on 'Energy Shortfall and Global Warming'. Oil prices, meanwhile, have settled at close to US$60 a barrel. But the price of oil isn't Sir Harold's major concern. He stated that the increase in the average temperature of the Earth's atmosphere during the past 30 years was faster than ever before, thanks to the massive burning of fossil fuels. Due to human impact, the CO2 level is now 30 per cent higher than it should be, according to the outspoken top scientist. Sir Harold's assessment of the coming energy crisis climaxed in words that are not typical for the rather restrained species of Nobel laureates: 'There is no doubt that we have global warming, there's no doubt we are in deep s***.' The G8 results, essentially an agreement for further dialogue later this year, would no doubt have given Sir Harold room to utter a few more expletives. Without sharing the harsh words, his fellow laureates agreed on the underlying scenario. They believe humanity has so one-sidedly focused on burning fossil fuel that it is not able to develop viable alternatives such as solar, wind or fusion energy in time for use on a bigger scale, to offset the loss of oil once it becomes serious. The result will be a renaissance of nuclear energy, and a massive rush into coal which is heavily polluting the atmosphere. Professor Walter Kohn, a member of the advisory committee to the US Department of Energy, offered a surprisingly short timeframe for the crisis to unfold. 'This is presumably becoming quite serious in something like 20 or 30 years, unless some substantial steps are taken right away,' he said. Sir Harold's projections are even less appetising than his words. 'When fossil fuel runs out,' he said during the annual meeting of Nobel laureates in Lindau, 'there will be serious civil unrest' - a euphemism for some of the wars of the 20th century. The lecture room in Lindau's Island Hall was silent as 700 students from around the world heard the six scientists talk about the probability of such a dire scenario. 'We are really heading for a disaster very rapidly,' said Professor Nicolaas Bloembergen, the Physics laureate of 1981. Professor Paul Crutzen, who received the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1995, shared the serious assessment. According to him: 'Climate warming was roughly 0.7 degrees Celsius during the 19th century and may increase to between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees during the 21st century. That will bring the Earth into conditions it has not experienced during the times of humans on Earth.' The renaissance of nuclear power and the accelerated rush into coal on a global scale is a projection that all six scientists shared at the meeting. Currently oil and gas provide 60 per cent of the global energy total, with nuclear energy providing about 7 per cent, according to Professor Sherwood Rowland, the Nobel laureate for chemistry in 1995. 'Oil and gas will be running out long before the end of the century. If you want to replace that loss, it means nuclear power has to be increased by a factor of seven or eight,' he said. Sir Harold put forward the alarming scenario that 'because we have taken so much money out of research in this area, what will happen when oil runs out is that we will be forced like lemmings to use nuclear reactors that are under-researched'. Sir Harold and his fellow scientists agreed that, within the given time frame, solar energy and hydrogen would hardly develop into serious alternatives able to satisfy a significant part of energy demands. 'The problem is storage, it's a rather difficult issue for us technically at this stage,' he said. Nuclear energy is already experiencing a strong comeback. While Europe and the US weigh in on the option, Asian countries such as China and India have set the stage for a major push. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, nuclear plants could contribute about 200 gigawatts of new capacity by 2030. Most of the additional capacity will be installed in Asia. Capacity in Asia will rise to 8 per cent of the region's total in 10 years, up from 5 per cent now. China, the world's second-largest electricity consumer after the US, will alone add 30 gigawatts of nuclear generation by 2030, almost as much as the whole of Europe during that time. Korea, according to this projection, may add 17 gigawatts, and Japan 14 gigawatts. China, driven by crushing fuel shortages, smog and ambitions to profit from its hard-won nuclear prowess, has embarked on a quest to more than double its nuclear power generation capacity by 2020. Beijing is in the process of selecting the best bidder for US$8 billion contracts for two new nuclear power plants in Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces, the biggest deals in years for the industry. At Qinshan, two hours southwest of Shanghai, sites are being prepared for four new reactors, in order to double the existing capacity with an investment of US$4.3 billion. China has to concentrate its nuclear power facilities in the heavily populated and industrialised coastal regions, where the demand is the highest and pollution levels are too high to burn more coal. China relies on coal and oil for 90 per cent of its energy, and started to be a net importer of crude oil in 1993. It needs to add two nuclear reactors a year in order to meet its target of generating 4 per cent of power from nuclear plants by 2020. The total Chinese energy usage grew by more than 15 per cent last year, much faster than the growth of GDP. After taking charge in late 2002, China's president Hu Jintao travelled to Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, with a good part of his missions focused on securing energy supplies. India's foreign policy is also increasingly focused on pressing energy needs, analysts say. The coming energy shortfall even starts to change the environmental argument. In the 1980s and 90s, people who cared about ecology often opposed nuclear power. Now, with worries over carbon dioxide emissions and global warming taking centre stage, coal and gas-fuelled power plants are in the midst of controversy, and nuclear is the most readily available alternative. In Europe, Finland is building the first nuclear station approved since 1986, when the Chernobyl blast became the world's worst nuclear disaster to date. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair may decide next year whether his government wants to replace the nation's ageing nuclear plants. In Germany, where the parliament voted to shut down its nuclear plants in 2001, opposition party leader Angela Merkel - who according to the latest polls is heading for victory in September's expected snap election - plans to keep nuclear energy alive, should her party win. In the US, President George W. Bush said in April 'it is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again'. The expected renaissance in nuclear energy has already driven uranium prices up 62 per cent in the past 12 months. Meanwhile, the coal industry is experiencing a similar resurgence. All over North America, coal miners are seeing their first good times since the early 80s. China, which accounts for one third of the world's total coal consumption, no longer exports coal because it needs the resource to fuel its own growth. Not even the announcement late last month that the world's first large-scale, sustainable nuclear fusion reactor will be built in France for an estimated US$10 billion can change the downbeat outlook of the Lindau panel. 'In 1966, the British embassy in the US offered me a job on the British fusion programme,' Sir Harold recalled. 'They said in 30 years we will have it. Last year I saw a statement: In 35 years we will have it. It's more pessimistic now than it was in 1966.'