Radiation Blog

Power Struggles: Fossil Fuels vs. Nuclear Energy

07.02.19 | Tuesday | StemRad Team

Both fossil fuel and nuclear energy help us meet our energy needs, yet both often give rise to criticism. Looking at the facts presents a complex picture that precludes staunch favoritism.

Fossil fuels – petroleum, coal and natural gas – originate from large reserves of ancient organisms buried in the ground for millions of years.
Though fossil fuels are continually being formed via natural processes, they are considered non-renewable resources since they take millions of years to form and the known viable reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are being made.

In addition, since the main building blocks of life are carbon and oxygen, burning fossil fuels for energy releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – many billions of tons more than the atmosphere can absorb, raising concerns of its greenhouse effect and global warming.

Added to that are the daily health consequences of fossil fuel use: Inhaling the pollution resulting from its use may cause acute respiratory illness, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart disease and decreased lung function. Coal and oil release sulfur dioxide gas when they burn causes breathing problems as well as acid rain. According to scientific studies, outdoor air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels causes over 3.5 million deaths worldwide per year.

Fossil Fuels vs. Nuclear Energy

Its upsides are wide availability (in the near future) and the relatively simple, low-tech infrastructure that is required.

Nuclear energy is also mined from underground reserves – mainly consisting of uranium and plutonium. Thus it is also considered a non-renewable resource of energy and care has to be taken that reserves are not depleted. In contrast to fossil fuel, its production entails significantly lower release of pollutants and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – thus it is termed clean and environment-friendly. Of course, if an accident occurs – such as the accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima, it has adverse health effects and contaminates the environment. Yet the number who have died due to nuclear disaster, including from radiation-related cancer many years after the event, is dwarfed by those dying from the health consequences of fossil fuels. This includes Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That said, nuclear energy results in nuclear waste, while fossil fuels result in waste that is not radioactive, and thus less enduring.

The graph below, from a NASA study, shows the number of deaths, in millions, prevented due to nuclear energy partially replacing fossil fuel.

Figure
Figure 1. Cumulative net deaths prevented assuming nuclear power replaces fossil fuels. The top panel (a) shows results for the historical period in our study (1971-2009), with mean values (labeled) and ranges for the baseline historical scenario. The middle (b) and bottom (c) panels show results for the high-end and low-end projections, respectively, of nuclear power supply estimated by the IAEA (ref. 4) for the period 2010-2050. Error bars reflect the ranges for the fossil fuel mortality factors listed in Table 1 of our paper. The larger columns in panels (b) and (c) reflect the all-coal case and are labeled with their mean values, while the smaller columns reflect the all-gas case; values for the latter are not shown because they are all simply a factor of about 10 lower (reflecting the order-of-magnitude difference between the mortality factors for coal and gas). Countries/regions are arranged in descending order of CO2 emissions in recent years. FSU15=15 countries of the Former Soviet Union and OECD=Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

 

With renewable resources providing but a small fraction of the world’s energy needs, the choice between fossil fuels and nuclear energy is not easy. However, the benefit of saving the lives of millions of people who die from fossil fuel-related air pollution should be taken seriously.

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