Nuclear power has prevented 1.84 million air pollution deaths and could save millions more in the coming decades

Using nuclear power in place of fossil-fuel energy sources, such as coal, has prevented some 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths globally and could save millions of more lives in coming decades, concludes a study. The researchers also find that nuclear energy prevents emissions of huge quantities of greenhouse gases. These estimates help make the case that policymakers should continue to rely on and expand nuclear power in place of fossil fuels to mitigate climate change.

Environmental Science and Technology Journal – Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power by Pushker A. Kharecha and James E Hansen. Hansen is a famous NASA scientist who is well known for his position to stop climate change.

Nextbigfuture has a lot of coverage of air pollution and deaths per terawatt hour by energy source

Deaths per twh by energy source in 2012.

A Nextbigfuture article from 2011.

A look at lowering the deaths per terawatt hour by reducing pollution and making energy safer.

A review of peer reviewed studies of air pollution deaths.

Several dozen other articles going back to 2008

“I was very disturbed by all the negative and in many cases unfounded hysteria regarding nuclear power after the Fukushima accident,” says report coauthor Pushker A. Kharecha, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in New York.

Working with Goddard’s James E. Hansen, Kharecha set out to explore the benefits of nuclear power. The pair specifically wanted to look at nuclear power’s advantages over fossil fuels in terms of reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

They used a study from 2007 which estimated the deaths per terawatt hour for different sources of energy.

Kharecha was surprised to find no broad studies on preventable deaths that could be attributed to nuclear power’s pollution savings. But he did find data from a 2007 study on the average number of deaths per unit of energy generated with fossil fuels and nuclear power (Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61253-7). These estimates include deaths related to all aspects of each energy source from mining the necessary natural resources to power generation. For example, the data took into account chronic bronchitis among coal miners and air pollution-related conditions among the public, including lung cancer.

The NASA researchers combined this information with historical energy generation data to estimate how many deaths would have been caused if fossil-fuel burning was used instead of nuclear power generation from 1971 to 2009. They similarly estimated that the use of nuclear power over that time caused 5,000 or so deaths, such as cancer deaths from radiation fallout and worker accidents. Comparing those two estimates, Kharecha and Hansen came up with the 1.8 million figure.

They next estimated the total number of deaths that could be prevented through nuclear power over the next four decades using available estimates of future nuclear use. Replacing all forecasted nuclear power use until 2050 with natural gas would cause an additional 420,000 deaths, whereas swapping it with coal, which produces significantly more pollution than gas, would mean about 7 million additional deaths. The study focused strictly on deaths, not long-term health issues that might shorten lives, and the authors did not attempt to estimate potential deaths tied to climate change.

Finally the pair compared carbon emissions from nuclear power to fossil fuel sources. They calculated that if coal or natural gas power had replaced nuclear energy from 1971 to 2009, the equivalent of an additional 64 gigatons of carbon would have reached the atmosphere. Looking forward, switching out nuclear for coal or natural gas power would lead to the release of 80 to 240 gigatons of additional carbon by 2050.

ABSTRACT – In the aftermath of the March 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the future contribution of nuclear power to the global energy supply has become somewhat uncertain. Because nuclear power is an abundant, low-carbon source of base-load power, on balance it could make a large contribution to mitigation of global climate change and air pollution. Using historical production data, we calculate that global nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning. Based on global projection data that take into account the effects of Fukushima, we find that by mid-century, nuclear power could prevent an additional 420,000 to 7.04 million deaths and 80 to 240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels, depending on which fuel it replaces. By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than expansion of nuclear power.

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