Nuclear Power Has Saved 1,800,000 Lives – Hansen Coauthors Study

Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen have published “Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power” in Environmental Science and Technology.

Because nuclear power is an abundant, low-carbon source of base-load power, 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 an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning. On the basis of global projection data that take into account the effects of the Fukushima accident, we find that nuclear power could additionally prevent an average of 420 000–7.04 million deaths and 80–240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels by midcentury, depending on which fuel it replaces. By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of unconstrained natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than expansion of nuclear power.

I have my beefs (beeves?) with Keith Kloor but he is on the money this time:

How does mainstream media not jump all over the news that nuclear power has apparently saved millions of lives? Then there’s the climate change angle, the massive amount of carbon emissions that seems to have been prevented. This strikes me as big!

I’m not suggesting the Hansen paper should be taken at face value, but I think it’s reasonable to expect it to be reported on, given his stature and the study’s startling claim. Millions of people saved is a lot of people.

It’s more than a little interesting to watch the twitter stream regarding this paper; Keith Kloor and Andy Revkin are happy to be media critics on this occasion.


  1. Well, I don't find the claim startling. I've always said nuclear power saves the lives of people who don't matter while reducing the fossil fuel income of people who do.

    So I'm not sure I can say something novel. Hansen has spoken truth to power before, and left his government job the day before the paper appeared. Kharecha, now, may have taken a bigger risk.

  2. The question is (and it's a genuine question, not a disguised bit of advocacy) would the same level of investment put into other renewables have saved the same number of lives and, perhaps more importantly, given us the potential to save more lives in the future from this point?

  3. Or, maybe as much to the point as renewables/efficiency relative to the 1960s-70s period when much of the existing nuclear capacity got developed, much of that money could have gone into coal plant pollution controls. I think it's at least arguable that the overweening promotion of nuclear power (too cheap to meter!) delayed development and implementation of such things.

    And it continues to happen, as witnessed by the very expensive failure of the National Ignition Facility to ignite anything. That same money could have bought an awful lot of renewables/efficiency R+D.

    A fair analysis needs to be comprehensive.

  4. "the very expensive failure of the National Ignition Facility to ignite anything" gets into "what's wrong with science", a topic that the climate activists to shy away from even as the inactivists distort it... It's a very long story.

    Never mind the even broader question of why government pours money down ratholes and defunds things that work.

    These are not off topic here - we are trying to discuss the future in enough detail to matter.

    I agree that we need to look at the big picture.

    Still I don't think the Ignition Facility boondoggle affects the best immediate energy strategy given the immediately available mix of options.

    Accounting for carbon will skew toward nukes more than not doing so. Accounting for Fukushima will skew it the other way. Considering the necessity of finishing the development process and moving the world up to a modest level of comfort and education adds more tension. Nobody knows how to manage all this and here we are. I find it hard to believe that shutting down all nukes is feasible, and in any case that leaves us with a nuclear waste issue. That being the case it seems to me that new nukes are likely to be part of the optimal path.

  5. Pingback: Another Week in the Planetary Crisis, April 7, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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