Nuclear Power Has Saved Millions of Lives, Report Says

By Breanna Draxler | April 3, 2013 2:45 pm

Nuclear power plant at night in Grohnde near Hameln in Lower Saxony, Germany. Image courtesy of Thorsten Schier/Shutterstock

Nuclear power has gained a good-sized cheerleading squad as a source of clean energy, but the risk of radiation exposure and the disposal of nuclear waste have also roused a fair number of opponents. Reactor disasters like the one in Fukushima highlight nuclear power’s risks, but scientists now say that by reducing pollution, nuclear power actually has saved millions of lives over the last 40 years.

Using data from past energy production (1971-2009) and future energy predictions (2010-2050), NASA climatologists  James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha estimated how much air pollution and how many related deaths nuclear power prevents as compared to burning coal or natural gas. They published the numbers in the March issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

Over the past 40 years, the NASA scientists calculated that nuclear energy prevented 64 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (measured in CO2 equivalents) from being pumped into the atmosphere. As a result, [UPDATE 4/4/13: by reducing particulates and other pollutants] they say 1.8 million people avoided air pollution-related deaths, such as those from diseases like chronic bronchitis or lung cancer. On the other side of the scale are the 4,900 deaths caused by nuclear power plants (including radiation fallout and accidents) during those 40 years.

Applying these findings to the future, then, the researchers say that replacing the world’s nuclear power plants with ones that ran on coal would lead to a surge of 7 million additional air pollution-related deaths in the next 40 years. If those power plants ran on natural gas instead, that number would still sit at a pretty lofty 420,000 deaths. Thus amidst ongoing global energy debates, it’s worth paying attention to not only what nuclear power does, but what it doesn’t do.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • JonFrum

    1. How do CO2 emissions cause pollution-related deaths? (please note: “As a result” implies a causal relationship).

    2. Does ‘fallout’ include only the results of power plant accidents? If so, it shouldn’t be ‘fallout and accidents.’ If not, did they include nuclear bomb fallout?

    3.They say “we assess that large-scale expansion of natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem…” I find it hard to imagine that the replacement of coal with gas as a power source would not mitigate CO2 output – the numbers are very well established, and say the opposite.

    • Breanna Draxler

      Thanks for weighing in, JonFrum. Hopefully this clears things up:

      In regards to your first question, the implication was intentional. The researchers make this causal connection in their paper: “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.”

      Second, the paper refers only to nuclear power, not nuclear bombs. Here is how the researchers explain the accident/fallout difference: “About 25% of these deaths are due to occupational accidents and about 70% are due to air pollution-related effects (presumably fatal cancers from radiation fallout).

      And for your final point: Natural gas would certainly reduce the CO2 output compared to coal, but would still be significantly (80 gigatonnes) more than with nuclear.

      • JonFrum

        Thanks for the quick response. I would argue that 1. The difference in CO2 output and the difference in pollution deaths are coincident, not causal, and the distinction should be made. CO2 is not a pollutant that is killing anyone, 2. For fallout, I assume we’re talking about Chernobyl – is there another fallout event relevant?, and 3.the statement is ‘would not mitigate the CO2 problem’ is obviously untrue by definition: lessen in force or intensity, as wrath, grief, harshness, or pain; moderate. 2. to make less severe:

        The fact that gas would produce more CO2 than nuclear is entirely irrelevant to the quoted claim.

        • Breanna Draxler

          1. The air pollution-related deaths are from particulates and other pollutants, not CO2, so I have updated the text to reflect this distinction.

          2. Chernobyl is indeed the only fallout event included when calculating nuclear-related deaths since no deaths have been directly linked to fallout from Three Mile Island or Fukushima.

          3. Natural gas does produce less CO2 than coal. You are correct. But perhaps mitigating GHG levels is distinct from mitigating the overall climate problem the researchers are referencing in their quote. I can’t speak for them, but maybe that’s what they meant.

    • coreyspowell

      The underlying methodology for calculating the number of deaths (or prevented deaths) comes from a 2007 paper in The Lancet, “Electricity Generation and Health.” It is available for free, with registration, here:

  • Matt Hickman

    I hope that the lives lost numbers NASA gives are better than the movie and record industries’ copyright math. It might be more accurate and less sensational to estimate the number of man-years lost to pre-mature deaths resulting from the projected pollution.

  • Jehangheer Malik

    Nuclear energy is used to generate electrical power. Therefore it is only possible to reduce the emission of CO2 if nuclear power plants are used instead of other, CO2 emitting technologies. This is in particular the case for electrical generation plants fuelled by coal, oil or gas. The CO2 emission can indeed be reduced, if electrical power plants driven by fossil fuels are being replaced by nuclear power plants. However the application of nuclear power unfortunately is highly problematic, therefore the problem of CO2 emissions must not be looked at independently of all other risks and problems.

    • JonFrum

      No, a switch from coal to gas will reduce CO2 emissions. Simple fact. A switch from coal to gas reduces emissions in the same way that insulating a house reduces emissions. Neither eliminates emissions – both reduce (your word).

  • H. Stewart

    That’s not even factoring in the deaths to coal miners around the world each year.

    • Breanna Draxler

      Actually, H.Stewart, the calculations DO include avoided miner deaths. It’s a good point to clarify, though!

  • margaretld

    People fear nuclear because of the massive loss of life that could occur, in the worst case. The fact that climate change will also and perhaps more definitively cause this loss of life is harder for people to picture. That needs to be addressed, and nuclear may be the best/only solution, but to pretend that one can calculate future deaths from nuclear in the same way as from coal is specious. Nuclear accidents are black swans. Deaths from CO2 are cumulative and far easier to model.

    • Ian Shankey

      There has never been a “massive loss of life” from a nuclear incident; Chernobyl, the worst accident in history, only killed 30-40 people from radiation. Contrast that with the 30-40 people who die EACH YEAR in the U.S. installing windmills, or the 50-100 that die each year in the Fossil Fuel Industry.

      Fear of Nuclear Power isn’t based in reality. Just ignorance & Anti-Nuke Propaganda.


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