Forget Fukushima, Nuclear Power Has Saved 1.8 Million Lives

Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Fukushima. All horrible accidents, but is the cost in lives far less than if those power plants had been burning coal?

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.

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  • dahidh

    Dear Benn,
    With the greatest of respect, I would maintain that nuclear weapons and nuclear power have everything to do with each other.Why otherwise would the US be suspicious of Iran and North Korea who are developing nuclear capability ? North Korea is not concerned that the world knows they want to (or have already developed ?) nuclear weapons; Iran maintains that they are only developing nuclear power, but the US is clearly wary that this means Iran wants to have nuclear weapons capability and is working actively on this.Furthermore, the volume of nuclear waste is not the point. I maintain that nuclear materials have what is called a half-life (of which fact I am sure you are aware). Wherever the degraded materials are stored for safe-keeping, they remain radio-active for huge periods of time. A ticking time bomb for future generations of mankind, which forms a real danger to all life on the planet. And let us not forget that whatever happened at the power plant near Chernobyl, the devastation to the natural environment there is undisputed and documented. Fukushima is another example of how mankind does not (and cannot yet) have complete control over it nuclear power stations. Although the so-called 'green' alternatives will require considerable investment, but in the long run, this kind of energy will not only be sustainable, there will also be no immediate danger to life on the planet. Geothermal, tidal energy, solar power, wind energy are all sources with vast, practically limitless capacity for meeting our energy needs.But do not forget that the earth is not limitless. The scientific community is still investigating, but it is apparent that we cannot consume at the presnt rate and allow the world population to grow indefinitely. These are real problems with no easy solution. But a healthy dose of common sense can help humankind solve these problems. In many respects, therefore, nuclear power is an easy option, light on investment, but with not yet completely apparent dangers.Let us try together to step forward prudently and above all after due consderation of all the options with all the implcations thereof.GreetingsDahidh.

  • dahidh

    Just read the article about nuclear power being the best of a bad bunch of power sources to solve our needs for energy at the same time as keeping global warming in check. I am afraid I am of the opinion that the researchers' parameters are too narrow to explore the problem area in an efficient way. 
    There are perhaps instances of deaths, poisonings and/or maimings that are not totally documented, but there is overwhelming report material from all kinds of sources that radiation has caused a whole lot more deaths and suffering than this study allows for. To name but one, the use of degraded uranium (435) in ammunition by US military in Fellujah, Iraq, during the last Gulf war can be linked to hundreds of babies born with deformities, such as cleft palates, half-formed faces, single eyes and so on. Let us not mention the risk of burying on land or at sea the degraded nuclear fuel, fuel which in many instances has a half-life of thousands of years, leaving a deadly poison for many generations to come. I could go on. The alternative you ask ? Make use of green energy sources of which there are legion possibilities: earth warmth, tidal energy, solar power, wind power (it's all just a matter of forward-planning and respect for our species and mother earth. Perhaps also we need to live as a species within the restrictions laid down by the natural environment and not use up irreplaceable resources like there was no tomorrow. The readers s of your website deserve a more informed, and broader discussion of the issues than such narrow studies as the above-mentioned affords.Dahidh

  • Benn Eichhorn

    Weapons in Iraq? Nuclear weapons have nothing to do with nuclear energy. 
    Nuclear waste? The waste generated in the US, France, Germany, UK, Japan and China for all the reactors combined last year would fit inside a 3 foot by 3 foot box. Not to mention that it can be recycled. How much coal do you think would have been burned to generate the same energy? How much carbon would that have put in our atmosphere?
    I believe you are missing the point of the article. 

  • gcowan49

    I think the technical term for what Munster is doing here is "lying". The only foundation funding mentioned in "Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power" is through the Columbia University Earth Institute, from a cable TV tycoon (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/new....

  • Friedemann Oliver Ohse

    The article is a disgrace to all victims and to all the good articles at fastco.

  • Friedemann Oliver Ohse

    And whats about the nuclear garbage? There is actual no solution, only expensive transportation and temporary storage … Whats about the risk of terrorism? Please think about future gcowan49 and not only about seemingly peaceful presence. The term »half-life« may seem strange to you.

  • gcowan49

    No, it isn't. Nuclear energy saves the lives of people who don't matter while reducing the fossil fuel income of people who do.

  • Richard Knobbs

    Easy to say 'forget Fukushima' if you're not living near to it. It's not so easy when you take your kids to the park only to find it's closed because the radiation in the soil was too high.

  • gcowan49

    "... one would presume they wouldn't mind ..." -- and one would be right.

    Here's a guy, the guy photographed pulling the boat -- 
    http://www.projectthinice.org/... -- 
    who wouldn't want *one* nuclear power plant in that boat. 
    Safer with two. Note the name of the outfit at the top of the page.

  • Richard Knobbs

     gcowan49 - So you wouldn't care about your own health or the health of your kids? Do you live in Japan/near Fukushima? Do you have access to alternative data or evidence that what the government *says* is a cover-up? I don't particularly trust any government, but I was here in Japan when the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster happened. We're still dealing with it, so when people tell us to 'forget it', I find it insulting.

    I push for more research into and development of geothermic, wind, solar and other alternative sources of energy. For those so strongly in favour of nuclear power, one would presume they wouldn't mind having a nuclear power plant and/or have a nuclear waste processing and storage plant on their doorstep.

  • gcowan49

    Or rather, because the government *says* the radiation is too high. The same government that has seen a substantial increase in its income due to almost entirely forbidding the use of $0.25/MMBTU uranium in favour of $16/MMBTU natural gas and even higher-cost oil.

  • Ko Kimura

    It depends how you look at the all aspects of safety measurement.  Even if there is no mechanical problems or human errors, natural disaster still happens and it triggers the wave of mechanical problems and human errors.  We all know from Fukushima that once disaster happens, it may become out of control.  Now the movement against the nuclear is the choice for many people in Japan.

  • thepeakofoil

    Just when I was beginning to enjoy this site this article comes along.

    The study presented a myopic view of a much greater problem.

    The issue beyond its direct operational pollution or supposed lack there of is the storage of a substance that will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years.


    There is one country known to me, Finland, actively building a permanent waste facility designed to store spent fuel rods.  The article above also links to a documentary "Into Eternity" on the subject of Finland's nuclear waste facility.

    Can we responsibly continue supporting ideas of a future that is not morally or physically possible when it comes to the energy and resources we use?

    We are paying for our energy with debt by using nuclear power.  The short term growth and continued electrical production come at a cost down the line (increasingly closer) of how to prevent nuclear waste from poisoning our planet more than it already has (the real cost with plenty of interest).

    The ideas in this article are laughable because of what is omitted from the discussion.

  • Lilly Munster

    If the author had bothered to go read the actual study and look at the funding statement they would know that this study is funded by the nuclear industry. The foundation that provided funding to this study has a track record of funding other bogus nuclear industry PR junk like booklets for schools promoting nuclear power and seminars for educators to feed them industry propaganda. It took me less than 10 minutes on Google to figure this out. Apparently that is too high of a standard for Journalism. 

  • Jortiz3

    I think what is more staggering is the number of people killed in the US from nuclear power, considering we have the most reactors and most developed nuclear infrastructure: If our scale were to round off in 500 people intervals, the number of people who developed lung cancer from fossil fuel burning power plants would be somewhere in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands range, while the nuclear related deaths would be rounded to zero. Each year, perhaps two or three people die in the US as a result of usually non-radiation related fatalities in the nuclear workplace (cranes fall). In fact, a nuclear reactor is safer workplace, statistically, than an office job by a large margin (although I have never seen the statistic, this is common knowledge apparently at Los Alamos National Labs' training office when learning radiation safety).

  • Jverruni

    Using a nuclear explosion image was really poor stock photo usage that was a real detriment to what was otherwise an excellent article.

  • Excellent article on how to 'lie' maybe! Russian Academy of Science has documented PROOF over 20 years that, Chernobyl ALONE, has directly resulted in over a MILLION PREMATURE DEATHS to date!!!!