A study published recently in Environmental Science and Technology by scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Columbia University Earth Institute adds heft to that argument, indicating just how much human life nuclear power may have saved over the years. To wit, researchers estimate nuclear power has prevented more than 1.8 million deaths due to air pollution between 1971 and 2009.
Given our fears, the findings are counterintuitive. But they’re persuasive. Those lives were spared, researchers say, because nuclear power spared the earth’s atmosphere 64 gigatons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, they argue, an additional 80 to 240 gigatons and up to 7 million deaths could be prevented by around 2050 if we replace some of our fossil fuels with nuclear power over time.
Mother Jones actually misquotes the study, I think. The 1.8 million lives were spared by dint of reduced pollution in the form of particulate matter (soot, sulphur dioxide, etc). That’s fewer heart attacks, lung cancers, etc. because people haven’t been breathing as much shit into their lungs. Nuclear power also saved 64 billion tons in CO2 emissions but there is no way to realistically correlate that to lives saved.
I’m suspicious of studies like this even when they reinforce my beliefs (especially when they do). But their number is, if not in the ballpark, at least on the highway to the ballpark. The number could be a lot less (which they acknowledge). But they would have to be way WAY off for the lives saved by nuclear power to be less than the 5000 they estimate to have been lost to it (from accidents and radiation).
Nuclear power is not perfect. But, of the realistic alternatives we have right now, it is the least harmful to the environment. It should be at the heart of any discussion about the future of energy.