Following Fukushima, many people turned their back on nuclear power. Governments, such as Germany’s, decided to halt plans for new stations or phase out existing ones. Critics were happy to say the disaster proved what they’d been saying all along: Nuclear is too dangerous, and we don’t need it.
But exactly how dangerous is nuclear really? It depends on how you look at it. In absolute terms, nuclear is as risky as hell. We would never conceive of building something like a nuke station, if we didn’t have to. But comparatively speaking? That’s perhaps another story.
A new paper by two researchers at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies calculates the damage if we hadn’t had nuclear power for the last several decades, and what damage might be caused if we don’t embrace the technology going forward.
Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen estimate that 4,900 people died as a result of nuclear power between 1971 and 2009, mostly from workplace accidents and radiation fallout, but, they said, 370 times more people (1.84 million) would have died, had we generated the same power from fossil fuels.
The scientists’ figures are based on estimates of mortality caused by particulate pollution, which killed 1.2 million people in China in 2010, according to a recent report. And it gets worse. They say burning natural gas to replace nuclear power will result in at least 420,000 deaths by 2050, and 7 million more if we replace it solely with coal.
Aside from immediate health impacts, Kharecha and Hansen’s point is to show that we really can’t do without nuclear if we want to keep climate change within manageable boundaries. They believe that renewables won’t supply the scale or dependability to replace nuclear, if we want to stay under a 1 degree C global temperature rise (above preindustrial levels). "Achieving these targets emphasizes the importance of retaining and expanding nuclear power, as well as carbon-free renewables, in the near-term global energy supply," they say.
The paper says nuclear power prevented 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions in the period to 2009 and would prevent 80 to 240 gigatonnes by 2050, depending on the replacement.
Kharecha and Hansen’s paper is likely to annoy (perhaps too mild a word) opponents of nuclear power who tend to exaggerate the actual evidence of harm. The best science shows that the long-term fallout from major nuclear accidents has been more modest than advertised. The paper states:
..no deaths have been conclusively attributed (in a scientifically valid manner) to radiation from the other two major accidents, i.e. Three Mile Island in March 1979, for which a 20-year comprehensive scientific health assessment was done, and the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident.
Meanwhile, a United Nations study of the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the worst in history, found that 43 people died, including 15 first responders.
Kharecha and Hansen’s point is not to minimize these deaths, or nuclear’s larger risks or costs, but to put them in comparative context. Rail against nuclear, if you want to. But when it comes to energy, you have to choose your poison.