Despite safety and other concerns, nuclear power saves lives, greenhouse gas emissions

May 29, 2013

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, a new study concludes. It appears in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen 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 mid-century, and prevent emission of 80-240 billion tons of the greenhouse gases linked to global warming, the study found. "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.
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The authors acknowledge funding from the Lenfest Foundation and the Columbia University-NASA Cooperative Agreement.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 163,000 members, ACS is the world's largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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