Nuclear power plants have prevented 1.8 million air pollution deaths and a future build out could save a lot more lives, according to a study by Pushker A. Kharecha and James E Hansen published in Environmental Science & Technology.
"Using historical production data, we calculate that global nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning," writes the researchers.
The scientists took the rate of death caused by air borne pollution and modelled it according to the how much energy was supplanted by using a nuclear energy source. The date range was 1971 to 2009.
Using the same models they looked at how many deaths could be prevented in the future.
"Based on global projection data that take into account the effects of Fukushima, we find that by mid-century, nuclear power could prevent an additional 420,000 to 7.04 million deaths and 80 to 240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels, depending on which fuel it replaces."
Taking into account the nuclear accident Fukushima Daiichi, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the fatalities caused by nuclear power are far less, about 4,900 deaths over the same period, which is 370 times lower than the deaths caused by coal.
Relying on nuclear could also considerably mitigate CO2 emissions ranging from 16% to as high as 48%. Without nuclear power, the authors warn that countries that plan to tackle climate change will require "heroic" feats of deploying new renewable technologies that will prove too costly and will not able to keep up.
Creative Commons image of a coal power plant in Germany by eutrophication&hypoxia