Recently retired NASA scientist James Hansen (along with lead author Pushker Kharecha) published an article in Environmental Science and Technology that made a powerful assertion: nuclear power is good for us.
What the authors did in this study was put methodology and numbers around something many of us have understood for a long time: even without considering climate change, combustion of fossil fuels is bad for our health to a level that nuclear fission just can’t match. Here is the abstract with the key findings and figures. Lest you submit to Abstract thinking, the full article is here: Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions.
In the aftermath of the March 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the future contribution of nuclear power to the global energy supply has become somewhat uncertain. Because nuclear power is an abundant, low-carbon source of base-load power, on balance it could make a large contribution to mitigation of global climate change and air pollution. Using historical production data, we calculate that global nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning. Based on global projection data that take into account the effects of Fukushima, we find that by midcentury, nuclear power could prevent an additional 420,000 to 7.04 million eaths and 80 to 240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels, depending on which fuel it replaces. By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than expansion of nuclear power.
Just how can this be? To put it simply, fission is not combustion, and waste is not pollution. Have a look at this shot of two reactors in China. You may notice something. Rather, you may notice the absence of something.
A chimney. A stack. An exhaust pipe as it were. There isn’t one. Unlike fossil combustion, nuclear fission does not expel harmful waste products all day long. The same goes for biomass. I found the open fire cosy and romantic for a night of roughing it in a hut over the Easter weekend, but smoke is really, really bad for your health over time.
Nuclear fuel enters a reactor as a ceramic and leaves again as a ceramic. There’s no smoke, no exhaust. There is waste. But not pollution because the waste is contained as standard operating procedure. Even that waste is just another type of fuel. You just need the right reactor.
As the recently published paper makes clear, the cumulative impact of the nuclear power in use is nearly 2 million deaths prevented, and in future it will be millions more, even taking highly conservative assumptions about the health impacts from the nuclear sector (as the paper has done).
To bring this all back to something real, lets visit Australia’s National Pollutant Inventory, and look up a few well known air pollutants: PM 10 (larger particulates), PM 2.5 (smaller particulates), oxides of nitrogen and sulphur dioxide. Let’s see check the contribution, and ranking, from two sources: electricity generation and coal mining.
|Pollutant||Electricity generation (quantity, ranking)||Coal mining (quantity, ranking)|
|PM 10||25,000,000 kg, 6th largest||320,000,000 kg, 2nd largest|
|PM 2.5||12,000,000 kg , Largest||7,100,000 kg, 2nd largest|
|Sulphur dioxide||580,000,000 kg (Equal largest)||N/A|
|Oxides of nitrogen||410,000,000 kg (Largest)||82,000,000 kg (5th largest)|
Those are the big ones. To review every pollutant reported for Australia’s fossil dependent electricity generation sector in the NPI, click here. To review every pollutant recorded for coal mining in Australia, click here.
When I said to an audience that we could have a future without air pollution, this is what I was getting at. So much of what harms us that we either accept, or remain completely ignorant of, can be completely eliminated by rebooting our energy system with a judicious combination of nuclear power and renewables. We need to eliminate coal, head off a major reinvestment in gas, then develop substitutes for our liquid fossil fuels using the clean energy.
If we incur pollution for other benefits, where simple substitutes don’t exist, well, ok… at the very least we need to have a discussion of trade-offs. Here, there is no trade off. It’s all upside. Dramatically less mining (and transport) for the prodigious volumes of fuel. The elimination of huge amounts of air pollution. Vastly safer.
The transition to nuclear is a valuable evolution of our civilisation without the urgency of climate change. We need to ditch our dependence on 18th century fuel, and embrace the technology of the 20th and 21st Century. It’s better for us.
Update: Click here for a just released (April 2013) review of global impacts of coal combustion on human health from the Chicago Institute of Public Health
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