Global use of nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and release of 64 billion tons of greenhouse gases that would have resulted from burning coal and other fossil fuels, according to a paper in Environmental Science&Technology.
Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen of Columbia University state that nuclear power has the potential to help control both global climate change and illness and death associated with air pollution. That potential exists, they say, despite serious questions about safety, disposal of radioactive waste and diversion of nuclear material for weapons.
Concerned that the Fukushima accident in Japan could overshadow the benefits of nuclear energy, they performed an analysis of nuclear power's benefits in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution deaths.
The study concluded that nuclear power already has had a major beneficial impact, based upon calculations of prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions for the period 1971-2009. Nuclear power could prevent from 420,000 to 7 million additional deaths by 2050, and prevent emission of 80-240 billion tons of the greenhouse gases linked to global warming, the study found.
Using historical production data, the authors calculate that global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatons of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning. On the basis of global projection data that take into account the effects of the Fukushima accident, they found that nuclear power could additionally prevent an average of 420 000–7.04 million deaths and 80–240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels by mid-century, depending on which fuel it replaces. By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of unconstrained natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than expansion of nuclear power. Credit and link:
Environmental Science & Technology
"By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of unconstrained natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than the expansion of nuclear power," it notes.
If the role of nuclear power declines significantly in the next 20-30 years, Kharecha added, the International Energy Agency predicts that achieving the major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are required to mitigate climate change would require "heroic achievements" in the use of emerging low-carbon technologies, which have yet to be proven.
Citation: Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen, 'Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power', Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (9), pp 4889–4895 DOI: 10.1021/es3051197 (open access)