A new study concludes that nearly two million lives have been saved due to the emission free nature of the nuclear power plant.
Nuclear power has always been criticized by those who don’t understand it. The first blow to its reputation came in 1986, when the Soviet-built 30 year obsolete Chernobyl power plant was mismanaged during a training exercise and the fourth reactor had a disastrous meltdown. Today, this still spooks people, despite the fact that modern nuclear plants are sealed; capable of surviving jet planes flying into them head on. During meltdown it would be practically impossible to contaminate the outside – the one exception being perhaps when the whole superstructure is damaged by a massive earthquake, like in Japan. Still, add a dash of “what do we do about the waste”, and you have a sizable population that would rather have nuclear power go away.
“I was very disturbed by all the negative and in many cases unfounded hysteria regarding nuclear power after the Fukushima accident,” says Pushker A. Kharecha at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. What almost everyone fails to consider, surprisingly given how climate conscious the world is becoming, is that nuclear power is clean and emission free. Whereas fossil fuels release tons of greenhouse gasses and pollutants into the atmosphere, the only thing coming out of the cooling towers on a nuclear plant is water vapor. It is this fact that has become the focus of Kharecha’s new study.
They're friendly, too
Kharecha decided to investigate the number of preventable deaths attributed to the lessened pollution of nuclear plants, but was unable to find any data. What he and partner James E. Hansen did find was a 2007 study on the number of deaths attributed to fossil and nuclear power, per unit energy. Their research has concluded that nuclear power has saved an estimated 1.8 million lives from health related deaths due to pollution, mining, oil drilling etc. Kharecha and Hansen went on to extrapolate the data into a prediction about how many deaths would occur from those causes if nuclear power was replaced with fossil fuels entirely until 2050. Natural gas would cause an additional 400 000 deaths, while coal would produce another 7 million deaths, due to the heavier emissions.
The study also compared the data for raw pollution, and found that if natural gas had taken the place of nuclear power, an extra 64 gigatons of carbon would be in the atmosphere from the years 1971-2009. The team also reached the conclusion that if natural gas replaced nuclear power until 2050, the power plants would release an additional 80 to 240 gigatons of carbon.
“The nuclear power issue is so polarized that people who oppose nuclear power will immediately dispute the numbers,” says environmental economist Bas Van Ruijven, but also reveals that he agrees with the numbers and with the research team’s conclusion on the importance of nuclear power.