Coal and gas are far more harmful than nuclear power
April 22, 2013
By Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen,
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Human-caused climate change and air pollution remain major global-scale problems and are both due mostly to fossil fuel burning. Mitigation efforts for both of these problems should be undertaken concurrently in order to maximize effectiveness. Such efforts can be accomplished largely with currently available low-carbon and carbon-free alternative energy sources like nuclear power and renewables, as well as energy efficiency improvements.
The paper demonstrates that without nuclear power, it will be even harder to mitigate human-caused climate change and air pollution. This is fundamentally because historical energy production data reveal that if nuclear power never existed, the energy it supplied almost certainly would have been supplied by fossil fuels instead (overwhelmingly coal), which cause much higher air pollution-related mortality and GHG emissions per unit energy produced (ref. 2).
Likewise, we calculated that nuclear power prevented an average of 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) net GHG emissions globally between 1971-2009 (see Fig. 3). This is about 15 times more emissions than it caused. It is equivalent to the past 35 years of CO2 emissions from coal burning in the U.S. or 17 years in China (ref. 3) — i.e., historical nuclear energy production has prevented the building of hundreds of large coal-fired power plants.
To compute potential future effects, we started with the projected nuclear energy supply for 2010-2050 from an assessment made by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency that takes into account the effects of the Fukushima accident (ref. 4). We assume that the projected nuclear energy is canceled and replaced entirely by energy from either coal or natural gas. We calculate that this nuclear phaseout scenario leads to an average of 420,000-7 million deaths and 80-240 GtCO2-eq emissions globally (the high-end values reflect the all coal case; see Figs. 1 and 3). This emissions range corresponds to 16-48% of the "allowable" cumulative CO2 emissions between 2012-2050 if the world chooses to aim for a target atmospheric CO2 concentration of 350 ppm by around the end of this century (ref. 5). In other words, projected nuclear power could reduce the CO2 mitigation burden for meeting this target by as much as 16-48%.
Our findings also have important implications for large-scale "fuel switching" to natural gas from coal or from nuclear. Although natural gas burning emits less fatal pollutants and GHGs than coal burning, it is far deadlier than nuclear power, causing about 40 times more deaths per unit electric energy produced (ref. 2).
Also, such fuel switching is practically guaranteed to worsen the climate problem for several reasons. First, carbon capture and storage is an immature technology and is therefore unlikely to constrain the resulting GHG emissions in the necessary time frame. Second, electricity infrastructure generally has a long lifetime (e.g., fossil fuel power plants typically operate for up to ~50 years). Third, potentially usable natural gas resources (especially unconventional ones like shale gas) are enormous, containing many hundreds to thousands of gigatonnes of carbon (based on ref. 6). For perspective, the atmosphere currently contains ~830 GtC, of which ~200 GtC are from industrial-era fossil fuel burning.
We conclude that nuclear energy — despite posing several challenges, as do all energy sources (ref. 7) — needs to be retained and significantly expanded in order to avoid or minimize the devastating impacts of unabated climate change and air pollution caused by fossil fuel burning.
1. Kharecha, P.A., and J.E. Hansen, 2013: Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power. Environ. Sci. Technol., in press, doi:10.1021/es3051197.
2. Markandya, A., and P. Wilkinson, 2007: Electricity generation and health. Lancet, 370, 979-990, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61253-7.
3. Boden, T. A., G. Marland, R.J. Andres, 2012: Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A., doi:10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2012.
4. International Atomic Energy Agency, 2011: Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050: 2011 Edition. IAEA Reference Data Series 1/31. Available at http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/RDS1_31.pdf
5. Hansen, J., P. Kharecha, Mki. Sato, V. Masson-Delmotte, et al., 2013: Scientific prescription to avoid dangerous climate change to protect young people, future generations, and nature. PLOS One, submitted.
6. GEA, 2012: Global Energy Assessment — Toward a Sustainable Future. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria. Available at http://www.globalenergyassessment.org.
7. Kharecha, P.A., C.F. Kutscher, J.E. Hansen, and E. Mazria, 2010: Options for near-term phaseout of CO2 emissions from coal use in the United States. Environ. Sci. Technol., 44, 4050-4062, doi:10.1021/es903884a.