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Nuclear Power May Prevent More Deaths Than It Causes

Climate Change: Study estimates that nuclear energy leads to substantially fewer pollution-related deaths and greenhouse gas emissions compared with fossil-fuel sources

by Mark Schrope
April 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 14

Credit: Shutterstock
More nuclear power plants are proposed to help stabilize global greenhouse gas concentrations.
Aerial view of the San Onofre nuclear plant in California.
Credit: Shutterstock
More nuclear power plants are proposed to help stabilize global greenhouse gas concentrations.

Using nuclear power in place of fossil-fuel energy sources, such as coal, has prevented some 1.8 million air-pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatons of carbon emissions globally over the past four decades, a study concludes. These estimates suggest policymakers should continue to rely on and expand nuclear power in place of fossil fuels to mitigate climate change, the authors say (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es3051197).

In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, critics of nuclear power have questioned how heavily the world should rely on the energy source. Pushker A. Kharecha, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wanted to look at nuclear power’s advantages over fossil fuels in reducing preventable deaths related to air pollution.

Kharecha and James E. Hansen, formerly at Goddard, relied on data for the average number of deaths per unit of energy generated with fossil fuels and nuclear power (The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/­s0140-6736(07)61253-7). These estimates include deaths related to all aspects of each energy source. For fossils fuels, that included bronchitis among coal miners or air-pollution-related lung cancer. Deaths related to nuclear power included cancer deaths from radiation fallout and worker accidents. The 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 from 1971 to 2009.

Looking forward, the researchers calculated that replacing all forecast nuclear power use until 2050 with natural gas or coal would lead to the release of 80 to 240 gigatons of additional carbon into the atmosphere. Because of the emissions advantage and challenges to implementing large-scale renewable energy, the researchers say nuclear energy is critical.

The study, however, focuses only on deaths, and doesn’t consider broader implications such as long-term health effects related to accidents.

Bas van Ruijven, an environmental economist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says the estimates on prevented deaths seem reasonable, but he wonders if they will convince ardent critics. The nuclear power issue is “so polarized that people who oppose nuclear power will immediately dispute the numbers,” he says.



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