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06/03/2013

Can nuclear power control global climate change?

Fukushima

A file photo of Fukushima Dai-ichi in Okuma, Japan. The nuclear power plant melted down in March 2011 after being hit by a tsunami. (AP photo.)

This one will definitely be controversial: a new study shows that global use of nuclear power has prevented almost 2 million air pollution-related deaths and the release of 64 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Yes, it argues that nuclear power is good and can control climate change.

Authors Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen say that nuclear power can help control global climate change and illness and death associated with air pollution. Yes, they admit there are serious questions about safety and disposal of radioactive waste nevertheless they make that argument.

The study is published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Kharecha and Hansen contend that nuclear power could prevent anywhere from 420,000 to 7 million additional deaths by 2050, and prevent the emission of 80-240 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

“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 the expansion of nuclear power," it notes.

Those are big numbers. But wait a second, what about the safety of nuclear power, especially since Fukushima blew up after a tsunami?

Here is what the authors say: “Our estimated human deaths caused by nuclear power from 1971 to 2009 are far lower than the avoided deaths. Globally, we calculate 4900 such deaths, or about 370 times lower than our result for avoided deaths.”

(They calculated 1,800 deaths in Europe, 1,500 in the U.S., 540 in Japan, 460 in Russia, 40 in China, and 20 in India.)

Twenty-five per cent of these deaths are due to occupational accidents, the study said.

If the role of nuclear power declines significantly in the next few decades, the International Energy Agency predicts that achieving major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are required to mitigate climate change would require “heroic achievements.”

Raveena Aulakh is the Star’s environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term, and wildlife. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh

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