Yesterday, the world mourned on the 27th anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster - and things are still not 'normal' in the disaster effected zone. In fact, many things will never get fixed, or normal, or reverted to prior-to-accident-state - some 30,000 sq. kms which will remain contaminated actively radiating till 2090 - polluting soil, air, water, and all living things and also killing them.
In this context, the efforts of nuclear lobby took an absurd and macabre turn with this recently published paper. The authors calculated deaths prevented by production of nuclear power, instead of power from fossil fuels - which would generate sufficient air pollution to choke 1.8 million people to death. This estimate is a cumulative of nuclear power generated throughout history and strongly advocates its future expansion, despite the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, to prevent a purported 7 million deaths by mid-century. It is curious that the authors compared two hazardously polluting thermal technologies, run on nuclear and fossil fuels, to declare nuclear power a winner - and this dubious win is also a suspect. It is more surprising that a journal like Environmental Science & Technology decided to publish this article, since competing two flawed and inviable technologies cannot be used to promote scientific merits of either.
However, if one were to indulge in such a bizzare exercise of account keeping deaths, it is also necessary to track all dead, or dying and generations yet to be born who will die, unnaturally, because their ancestors, in the distant past, were exposed in nuclear disasters. Between 1986-2004, an estimated 985,000 died mostly due to cancer from Chernobyl exposure. By 2011, this number had risen to 1.5 million. Yes.. it is true that these estimates are statistical , but these are now statistics of large numbers and well above average mortality expectations (for example the cancer rates in cleaning crew is three times higher than rest of the population). Remember that for every death due to radiation exposure there are at least twice as many cases of cancer - with their untold misery, pain and suffering. And, all this before we reach the half life of 137Cesium which is 30 years. It takes three decades for half of the radioactive 137 Cesium to have decayed and harmed everything in its path...and between five to seven such half lives before the radioactive effects become sufficiently small. Thus the radioactive contamination of 137 Cesium will continue decaying and damaging ad infinitum, as will also the other radioactive isotopes of Strontium and Plutonium.
While it might be too early yet to observe the health damage in the exposed population in Japan, recent studies seem to indicate that the Cesium levels from Fukushima disaster could be as much as 20-30 times higher, and might contribute to a thousand times more deaths than predicted. In fact, the effect of irradiating the food chain will contribute and build radiation poisoning in all species. Thus, the total future death toll from Fukushima disaster should also be subtracted from the estimated 'lives saved' in this paper.
A question for the authors is : when a single major nuclear accident, like Chernobyl, can wipe off the canvassed advantage of the historically-compounded nuclear power, over coal, are they sure of their conclusion - of saving lives with nuclear energy, and further advocating a global nuclear future? Especially when the death toll from Chernobyl and Fukushima will continue to increase on time scale much much longer than our lifetimes, or of these authors writing this ludicrous paper.
Also, the authors calculate that IAEA's projected increase in nuclear energy capacity till 2050 will save a further maximum of 7 million lives, forgetting to scale alongside the direct additional risk of serious future nuclear accidents. Are ready to risk four times as many Chernobyls and Fukushima, with their un-countable future deaths and health impacts and the vast irreversible environmental costs, to allow a future nuclear race? Can we, as a human race sustain or even survive this?
Don't get me wrong - I am definitely not arguing in favor of highly polluting, hazardous, huge GHG emitting fossil fuelled thermal power plants. But I staunchly oppose the pitching one disastrous technology against another to proclaim, unethically, a winner. For this is what the authors do - use incomplete calculations to make strong and wrong inferences, to lobby for the future of nuclear energy, forgetting, that nuclear accidents are inseparable components of such complex and unsafe technology and there can only be losers in such "death-ly competition".