My take on Hansen’s cautious nod to nuclear power

Nuclear energy has a bad reputation for many good reasons. It is expensive, nuclear waste is a problem we still do not know how to deal with, and accidents, while luckily rare, have catastrophic health consequences. I have not considered nuclear energy a viable alternative primarily because of cost and waste disposal issues. The considerable effects of accidents on human and ecosystem health, and the psychological burden of living near a nuclear power plant given the perception of ever present danger are also big factors.

However, I am going to have to look at this issue in greater detail. Kharecha and Hansen (2013) (yes, that Hansen) published a recent study (Open Access) that argues some of the benefits of nuclear power.

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, 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.

via Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power – Environmental Science & Technology ACS Publications.


The big argument made here is that coal (and fossil fuel) combustion is linked to millions of excess deaths from air pollution. Kharecha and Hansen modelled the effects of replacing all the power generated by nuclear reactors with coal and natural gas and widely accepted correlations between fossil fuel combustion and increased death to come up with this number of lives saved from nuclear power use, about 1.8 million. In contrast, they calculate nuclear power to have caused about 5000 deaths, a few orders of magnitude lower!

Kharecha and Hansen use this fairly compelling data based a simple, easy to understand analysis, to caution countries against shuttering existing nuclear power plants, as Germany has proposed, or changing plans based on the Fukushima catastrophe.

My comments:

  • If you needed more confirmation that coal and natural gas combustion cause many many deaths, this helps. They also make the compelling argument that natural gas is not really going to save us at all, it does reduce air pollution deaths, but only on the margins.
  • The work adds valuable context on fossil fuel combustion related death by comparing it with a source of energy universally tagged as “dangerous”. It is easy for people to visualize, personalize and react viscerally to nuclear energy because our culture and recent history are filled with images and instances of horrific nuclear damage. The bombs dropped by the US on Japan affected millions and are still imprinted in people’s minds. I assume the word “nuclear energy” mostly bring up images of mushroom clouds and five eyed fish in people. These effects are real. It is, however, very difficult to visualize and personalize the slow, but persistent drip of deaths from air pollution. A heart attack, or heart failure, or pneumonia bout that kills an already vulnerable person cannot be positively attributed to air pollution. Only long term, big population epidemiological studies can show even a measurable increase in death rate (Dockery et al, 1993) when air quality deteriorates. But disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima are acute and affect whole populations instantly. To show that nuclear power actually saved lives when compared with coal pollution is thought provoking, and enabled me to take a second look at nuclear power.
  • The argument to keep existing sources of nuclear energy going, while spending the money and time it takes to keep the infrastructure safe is convincing to me. Nuclear energy plants are very expensive to build, but relatively cheap to operate. A plant that is operating well, and is considered safe shouldn’t just be shut down in reaction to a single accident.
  • Given the declining cost trajectory of renewables, and the absolute necessity of humanity to become more energy efficient first, the authors do not make a compelling case for new nuclear power as an alternative to a more aggressive approach on renewable energy, efficiency. and reconsidering the “infinite growth on finite planet” paradigm. For example, see this video from Mark Jacobson on providing humans with electricity using a 100% renewable energy strategy.
  • Nuclear power plants cannot be built without extensive government intervention and planning because they are cost prohibitive, and huge potential liabilities. When that level of government intervention and support is required and needs to be mobilized, why not use it to deploy energy efficiency measures and renewable energy? Governments that push nuclear energy aggressively tend to become unpopular on a local level very fast, too easy to organize against. If short-term conventional economic cost is the only consideration, only coal and natural gas plants would get built anyway.
  • Nuclear waste disposal, and the horrors of uranium mining are a big stumbling block, and the authors do not have a ready answer for this problem. This makes the development of nuclear energy a nightmare for communities adjacent to plants, waste sites and mining operations. In a 2010 paper, Kharecha and Hansen (2010) argued that “High-priority development and demonstration of fourth-generation nuclear technology (including breeder reactors) is needed to provide a solution to nuclear waste disposal and eliminate the need to mine more uranium for many centuries”. Note, none of this technology is available, or even close to fruition. So, to argue for expanding nuclear power in the absence of waste management/mitigation strategies is unwise.
  • The stockpiling of nuclear weapons and the security apparatus around the offensive uses of nuclear power stand in the way of realistic cooperation or information sharing on research. Nuclear diplomacy is an antagonistic world of haves, want to haves, and have-nots, and countries like India that need power desperately do not have access to more modern technology and research because of their foolish offensive endeavours and the hypocrisy that is the nuclear “non-proliferation” regime (I can have 5000, you can’t have any).

This paper is an interesting contribution that shows us very clearly that we need to move away from fossil fuel combustion quickly for many reasons. I agree on not unwisely shutting down nuclear infrastructure that is performing well, but cannot go along on expanding nuclear power generation significantly because we really do not have a handle on the siting, waste disposal and constant sense of dread that pervades a neighbourhood with a nuclear plant.

Update: Andy Revkin writes about whether the “dread to risk” ratio is a good thing to measure, or keep in mind. I don’t agree with his casual lumping of complex, emerging issues like fracking, or low level chemical exposure into the same pile as nuclear radiation, which is a relatively easy to understand physical phenomenon studied for many years.

Peer Reviewed References

Kharecha, P.A., Hansen, J.E., 2013. Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 4889–4895.

Kharecha, P.A., Kutscher, C.F., Hansen, J.E., Mazria, E., 2010. Options for Near-Term Phaseout of CO2 Emissions from Coal Use in the United States. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 4050–4062.

Dockery, D.W., Pope, C.A., 3rd, Xu, X., Spengler, J.D., Ware, J.H., Fay, M.E., Ferris, B.G., Jr, Speizer, F.E., 1993. An association between air pollution and mortality in six U.S. cities. N. Engl. J. Med. 329, 1753–1759.

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