NASA Paper: Nuclear Power Prevented 1.84 Million Deaths, May Spare 7 Million More

A new study out of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies says the use of nuclear power has prevented many more deaths than it has caused because of its lower impact on the environment.

The study in Environmental Sciences & Technology, says that from 1971 to 2009, 1.84 million human deaths were prevented thanks to the use of nuclear power, with an average of 76,000 prevented deaths per year from 2000-2009.

The number of deaths nuclear energy has caused during that same time was 4,900 deaths, or about 370 times lower than the number of lives saved, the study said.

The paper was authored by Dr. Pushker A. Kharecha and climatologist Dr. James Hansen, who was the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute until he announced his retirement effective Wednesday. He’s known as a pioneer in global warming and plans to use his time to continue to protest the use of fossil fuels, according to the New York Times. 

The research calculated the perceived life-saving implications by comparing how the world sources it’s energy (coal, gas, etc.), emission factors by source, and nuclear power trajectories from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency. 

The lives spared occurred because 64 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases would have been released into the atmosphere had fossil fuel burning been used, the study states. 

In 2011, the U.S. produced 6,708.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, an 8.7 increase from 1990 to 2011, according to the latest report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. There was a 1.5 percent decrease from 2010-11 due to a decrease in coal consumption, the report said.

Researchers say expanding the use of nuclear power could save even more lives. By their data, by 2050 the use of nuclear energy could prevent an additional 420,000 to 7.04 million deaths, depending what fuel source it replaces (i.e. fossil fuels, etc.).

“In conclusion,” the study states, “it is clear that nuclear power has provided a large contribution to the reduction of global mortality and (green house gas) emissions due to fossil fuel use.”

Nuclear Power’s Impact on Health

The use of nuclear power has been uncertain since the 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. A major earthquake caused the meltdown, which caused a chain link reaction of other countries modifying their nuclear power strategy, including some closing down reactors.

The U.S. currently has 65 nuclear power plants using 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 

The greatest fear of nuclear energy is a meltdown, such as the 1986 Chernobyl accident, which the NASA paper says is the only time anyone has died from radiation fallout from a nuclear power plant: 28 staff and first responders and 15 fatalities from the 6,000 cases of diagnosed thyroid cancers. 

Researchers say that “no deaths have been conclusively attributed (in a scientifically valid manner) to radiation” from the two other major nuclear accidents: Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011.

Previous studies into the Three Mile Island incident don’t provide valid evidence that residents in the area were at an elevated cancer risk because of the leak.

Shutting Down Nuclear Power Plants Prevents Cancer?

Earlier this month, a study was published that asserted the closing of one nuclear power plant in Sacramento, Calif., may have lead to 4,319 fewer cases of cancer.

Researchers by Joseph J. Mangano and Janette D. Sherman stated more research was needed to show a cause-and-effect relationship between the plant’s closing and a decrease in cancer rates a decade after the closing, but their research created a firestorm of fury inside the nuclear community, asserting that their findings don’t amount to much other than misinformation.

Previous published works by Mangano and Sherman have been called “junk science” as some of the claims aren’t supported with proper scientific data. 

One such group that is skeptical of their research is the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in Washington, D.C., a lobbyist group that represents the nuclear industry.

Steve Kerekes, NEI’s senior director of media, contacted Healthline after the article published on March 28 and further criticized the research.

“Their work is the scientific equivalent of clearing one’s throat,” he said in an email. “It doesn’t actually say much of anything.”