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In a recent paper in Environmental Science and Technology, Kharecha and Hansen argue that, by avoiding the airborne pollution that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning, millions of lives have been saved.

In their words:

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.

Are their assumptions, numbers and results credible?

  • 2
    It's a peer-reviewed publication from a reputable publisher; I think it's beyond the scope of this site to second-guess validity beyond that. – Larry OBrien Apr 3 '13 at 20:30
  • @LarryOBrien Peer review doesn't mean the results are reliable. We can still question their assumptions and calculations. – matt_black Apr 3 '13 at 22:36
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    if you're only going to believe people you agree with, clearly people in the anti-nuclear lobby in your case, what's the point in posting things like this as you're never going to agree with facts anyway. – jwenting Apr 4 '13 at 6:05
  • @jwenting As it happens I don't have a clear view on the merits or not of nuclear power. Besides, the point of being a skeptic is to be open to alternative analysis and facts, hence why I post the question. Even on questions where I do already have an opinion, I like to give others a good chance to present alternative analysis rather than assuming that is futile. – matt_black Apr 4 '13 at 8:17
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    nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html Seems to have a lot of data on this and other causes of death (eg mining). Nucelear is by far the safest. – Nick Apr 4 '13 at 12:01
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This blog post has a detailed analysis of the deaths from various forms of energy. It would seem to agree with the result of a large number of deaths saved from the use of nuclear energy.

For just air pollution it says:

The World Health Organization and other sources attribute about 1 million deaths/year to coal air pollution. Coal generates about 6200 TWh out of the world total of 15500 TWh of electricity. This would be 161 deaths per TWh.

So 1 million deaths per year from coal air pollution. Nuclear power provides ~6% of the worlds energy, and so over 20 years over a million lives will be saved. This seems to make the claim in the original paper seem feasible.

Other forms of energy are also compared for total deaths per TwH:

Energy Source              Death Rate (deaths per TWh) CORRECTED
Coal (elect, heat,cook –world avg) 100 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal electricity – world avg        60 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal (elect,heat,cook)– China      170
Coal electricity-  China            90 
Coal – USA                          15
Oil                                 36  (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas                          4  (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass                     12
Peat                                12
Solar (rooftop)                      0.44 (0.2% of world energy for all solar)
Wind                                 0.15 (1.6% of world energy)
Hydro                                0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro - world including Banqiao)     1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear                              0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

This is also shown visually:

Death rates of Nuclear, oil and coal per watt produced

  • Ok, so he does talk about air pollution too, but the numbers you show in you answer are totals. This are mainly due accidents, be it mining (main cause of fatalities in case of coal) or falling of the roof while installing solar power. – vartec Apr 4 '13 at 12:20
  • @vartec Yes, I've edited it to add in the air pollution specific part too. – Nick Apr 4 '13 at 12:21
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    WHO does list air pollution by coal and other solid fuels as cause of 1.8mln deaths, but that's indoor air pollution. OTOH, the do mention 1.2mln deaths as result of urban outdoor air pollution, but mention transportation as main contributor. And that's from the report that's been quoted an misinterpreted in the blog you're using as a source: who.int/ipcs/features/air_pollution.pdf – vartec Apr 4 '13 at 12:36
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Their claim is that currently nuclear power saves close to 80,000 lives annually.

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It's true, that WHO attributes 1.2 mln deaths to outdoor air pollution. So at first glance numbers makes sense. Nuclear power is 6% of total, 6% of 1.2mln is 72,000. Close enough... or not?

Their fallacy seems to be believe that all pollution is equal, and all pollution comes from energy production. However, WHO mainly attributes deaths by outdoor air pollution to transportation sector.

  • In the year 2004, outdoor air pollution in urban areas was responsible for almost 1.2 million deaths (2% of all deaths) and 0.6% of the global burden of disease. Transportation-related air pollution, which is a significant contributor to total urban air pollution, increases the risks of cardiopulmonary-related deaths and non-allergic respiratory disease. Some evidence supports an association of transportation-related air pollution with increased risks of lung cancer, myocardial infarction, increased inflammatory response and adverse pregnancy outcomes (e.g. premature birth and low birth weight).

  • Exposure to particulate matter, including metals, has been linked to a range of adverse health outcomes, including modest transient changes in the respiratory tract and impaired pulmonary function, increased risk of symptoms requiring emergency room or hospital treatment, and increased risk of death from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases or lung cancer. Particulate matter is estimated to cause about 8% of deaths from lung cancer, 5% of deaths from cardiopulmonary disease and about 3% of deaths from respiratory infections.
    (sidenote: this point is mainly about leaded gasoline)

  • Short-term exposures to ozone are linked with effects on pulmonary function and the respiratory system, lung inflammation, increased medication usage, hospitalization and mortality. Reduced lung function has been associated with long-term ozone exposure.

  • Short-term exposures to nitrogen dioxide, an indicator for a complex mixture of mainly traffic-related chemicals, have been associated with effects on pulmonary function, increased allergic airway inflammation reactions, hospital admissions and mortality. Reduced lung function and increased probability of respiratory symptoms are associated with long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide.

source: WHO report "Exposure to Air Pollution: a Major Public Health Concern"

We're not in Fallout universe, there are no nuclear powered cars. On the other hand electric cars do not pollute urban areas regardless what kind of fuel is used to generate electricity. While nuclear power does help reduce carbon footprint and reduce air pollution to some extent, it cannot claim saving 80,000 lives annually.

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