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Nuke plants get life-saver tag

- Check on air pollution has saved lives: Study

New Delhi, May 5: The world’s nuclear power plants have, through avoided air pollution, saved more lives than they have ever claimed, a study that estimated the number of prevented human deaths has suggested.

The study by two US scientists has calculated that the world’s 441 nuclear reactors have prevented 1.84 million deaths between 1971 and 2009, or an average of about 76,000 deaths prevented every year over the past decade.

Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York calculated the likely human deaths from air pollution if each of the world’s 441 reactors were replaced with power plants fuelled by coal or gas. Their results were published recently in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The scientists have also estimated that nuclear power has caused about 4,900 deaths, among which about 25 per cent were due to occupational accidents and about 70 per cent from the effects of air pollution.

The study provides quantitative data that some scientists believe could help counter campaigns against nuclear power that have intensified since tsunami waves struck a nuclear power complex in Fukushima, Japan, two years ago.

Anti-nuclear sentiments, among other factors, have stalled a proposal for a nuclear power station in Bengal’s Haripur and contributed to the delay in pre-commissioning activities at the first of two 1000MW Russian reactors in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu.

“Nuclear power has effectively prevented the construction of hundreds of large coal-fired power plants,” Kharecha told The Telegraph. “These findings are very relevant to India, which is currently the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide and is expected to continue to remain a major energy user.”

India has 20 nuclear plants with an installed capacity of about 4700MW. The US study has calculated that nuclear power reactors in the country have prevented at least 8,000 deaths between 1971 and 2009. The figures for prevented deaths are higher in countries with bigger nuclear power sectors — 1.4 million deaths prevented in the US, 670,000 in western Europe and 40,000 in China.

“The larger a nation’s nuclear power programme, the more the number of lives saved,” said V. Siddhartha, a senior Indian analyst with experience in the strategic technology areas. “There has been little public investment in nuclear power relative to public investment in other power sectors.”

While studies in the past have estimated greenhouse gas emission reductions by nuclear power plants, research on prevented human deaths has remained “largely unexplored”, the two US scientists wrote in their paper.

The researchers calculated mortality as the sum of the deaths from the effects of air pollution from the emission of fossil fuels and accidental deaths during all stages of fuel cycle — from extraction to transportation to electricity generation.

“Coal is a big silent killer,” said Swadesh Mahajan, a nuclear scientist at the University of Texas who has been working on the design of nuclear power plants for the future. But anti-nuclear sentiments, he said, have thrived on the “inability to look at such figures in a dispassionate manner”.

A US task force on clean air had estimated three years ago that coal-fired plants remain a major source of air pollution, spewing sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen in the air. Its report had estimated that air pollution from coal plants would cause 13,000 premature deaths in 2010 and contribute to some 20,000 heart attacks per year in the US alone.

Kharecha and Hansen have calculated that the use of nuclear power plants instead coal or gas-fired plants between 2010 and 2050 will prevent four million to seven million deaths, depending on the rate of expansion of nuclear power.

The researchers point out that the Chernobyl accident in April 1986 was “the world’s only source of fatalities from nuclear power plant radiation fallout”. A UN panel had assessed in 2008 that only 43 deaths had been “conclusively attributed” to radiation from Chernobyl, they said.

The researchers said their estimate of 4,900 deaths from nuclear power could itself be a “major overestimate”, given the absence of any evidence of large mortality from past nuclear accidents.