Quantifying health damage caused by burning of fossil fuels has always been a challenge to researchers. Nuclear power is often considered as a possible alternative, which could limit the greenhouse gas emissions. However, not many studies have succeeded in providing clear estimates of how many people could potentially be saved if the transition to nuclear happens.
Now, a recent paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology provides exact estimates, reporting that 1.8 million lives will be saved if nuclear replaces fossil fuels, and additional 7 million people will not experience health problems due to toxic emissions in the next few decades.
These numbers were provided by Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen, scientists at NASA Goddard Institute. Besides quantifying the effect of nuclear, the authors also claim that the planned expansion of natural gas will not have the anticipated effect in reducing emissions.
These conclusions were reached through analysis of data on number of deaths caused by different power sources in the period between 1971 and 2009. The authors developed a model, which simulates a scenario where all nuclear power is replaced by fossils. Th findings were then used to make predictions for the period between 2010 and 2050, where nuclear is either replaced by coal or by natural gas.
The authors focused on number of deaths, and did not take into account serious health damages. They showed that in countries, which slowly withdraw from nuclear, such as Germany and Japan, the model predicted higher number of deaths.
The results clearly indicate that the number of deaths caused by nuclear are much lower than these, which will be saved. The authors urge countries like Germany and Japan, who are trying to phase out nuclear completely, to reconsider their decisions, unless all nuclear is fully replaced by other renewable energy sources.
In addition to number of deaths, the authors looked at the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that could potentially be reduced if nuclear replaces fossils. The study claims that up to 48% of emissions will be cut down, and this does not even consider the use of new reactor technologies.
The conclusions clearly state that millions of lives could be saved, especially if new and improved nuclear reactors are put into use. However, the debate is still going to continue, regardless of how many novel reactor designs are there.
As stated by the International Energy Agency, it would be very difficult to replace all nuclear with renewable energy sources in the next forty years, while the proposed bridge to use natural gas is not going to be sustainable. There is a clear need of a solution, but it is all in the hands of governmental officials and policy makers. Hopefully, it is only a matter of time until the verdict is announced.