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Study: Nuclear power could save millions of lives

Study: Nuclear power could save millions of lives

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News & Events - Engineering News

April 5, 2013

A bit more than two years ago, a devastating earthquake struck off the eastern coast of Japan sending an equally massive tsunami sweeping over the populated northern plains, as well as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Soon after, the plant's reactor melted down and it was forced to release radioactive material into the ocean.

The long-term consequences of this disaster likely will not be known for decades, if then, and the death toll might rise in the coming years. But many parts of the global community have already acted to prevent a similar tragedy, with several countries abandoning nuclear power entirely, even a major economy like Germany.

As much as the attention since the Fukushima accident has focused on the potentially devastating effects of nuclear power, a new study has attempted to highlight the potential of the energy source to save lives as well, according to Chemical & Engineering News.

Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen, both researchers at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, published a report recently in Environmental Science & Technology that looked at the likely number of deaths prevented through the use of nuclear power over the past four decades.

Lesser of two evils
Initially the researchers had planned to look at the death toll of nuclear power, but were unable to find large reliable data sources. So, instead, they turned to looking at the number of deaths that this source of energy might have prevented.

"I was very disturbed by all the negative and in many cases unfounded hysteria regarding nuclear power after the Fukushima accident," Kharecha said.

The basic assumption of the paper - and it can certainly be challenged to some extent - is that any electricity that was generated through nuclear power would ultimately have come from another source if necessary.

That means replacing a significant portion of U.S. and global power generation with added natural gas or, more likely, coal consumption. Significant data was available estimating the rate of deaths per unit of power generated for each of these fuels.

Though the period of study between 1971 and 2009 included the shocking Chernobyl incident, the study estimates nuclear power's death toll at around 5,000 people. In that same time, the number of people who might have died from a similar amount coal- and gas-fired generation was estimated at a staggering 1.8 million.

Commonplace consequences
That might seem like an incredible number to attribute to coal and natural gas, but to some extent the many serious medical consequences of fossil fuels are often lost in the simple familiarity of such fuels.

The numbers do include a broad interpretation of the associated deaths, as the estimates account for everything from lung cancer caused by pollution to chronic bronchitis suffered by coal miners.

Nevertheless, the figures represent an enormous distinction in the potential death toll of fossil fuels as compared to nuclear power, and that enormous number barely compares with the estimates for the potential deaths through 2050. The researchers suggest that abandoning nuclear power in favor of coal and natural gas - a trend already taking place in Germany and, to some extent, in Japan - could mean anywhere from 420,000 to 7 million preventable deaths.

On top of that, such a switch could cause the release of between 80 and 240 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

A report from io9 suggests that even the rare instances of catastrophic failure in nuclear power do not measure up to some of the biggest disaster from other power sources, such as the 1975 Shimantan/Banqiao Dam failure, which killed more than 170,000 people. While the tides seem to moving  further away from nuclear, the researchers argue that there are still reasons to argue for its continued use.

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