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How Nuclear Technology can Help Ensure Clean Air for All - International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies 2020


The Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant Nuclear in Finland. Nuclear power plants emit virtually no air pollutants during their operation. (Photo: IAEA)

Energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, driven by fossil fuels, have skyrocketed over the last half century and now make up more than two-thirds of all GHG emissions. As the world marks the United Nation’s International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, clean sources of power, such as nuclear energy, are in the spotlight. These energy sources can help meet global climate change goals and also reduce air pollution to protect people’s health.

What is the single greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally? Air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is responsible for the deaths of millions of people worldwide every year.

Air pollution and climate change are intimately connected. As well as driving climate change, emissions of various toxic gases from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, is also a major source of air pollutants.

It’s a two-fold problem: air pollution has a health impact – tiny, invisible particles of pollution penetrate deep into our lungs, bloodstream and cells. These pollutants are responsible for about one-third of deaths from stroke, chronic respiratory disease, and lung cancer, as well as one quarter of deaths from heart attack, according to the WHO.

Air pollution also has a climate impact – short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) are among pollutants most linked with both health effects and near-term warming of the planet. These pollutants include methane, black carbon, ground-level ozone and sulphate aerosols. They have significant impacts on the climate: black carbon and methane, in particular, are among the top contributors to global warming after CO2.

Two million deaths avoided in the last 50 years

Nuclear power has the potential to continue to play a significant role in the effort to limit future air pollutants and GHG emissions while meeting global energy needs. Unlike coal, oil or gas, nuclear power does not release any greenhouse gases during its operation. Using historical production data, a 2019 study from the International Energy Agency found that over 60 gigatons of CO2-equivalent net GHG emissions were avoided globally in the last 50 years, thanks to nuclear power. This prevented the death of approximately 2 million people, who could have otherwise died due to air pollution, according to an article by NASA scientists entitled 'Coal and Gas are Far More Harmful than Nuclear Power'.

Mean net deaths prevented annually by nuclear power between 1971-2009 for various countries/regions. (NASA)

“Nuclear power has been a consistent source of low air pollution and low carbon electricity for decades and utilizing its proven capabilities can help countries meet the Sustainable Development Goals,” says Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy. “With electricity demand expected to rise sharply in the coming years, this is undoubtedly where nuclear can come into play.”

Without nuclear power, it will be difficult to meet global climate goals, concluded scientists, economists and policymakers at the IAEA’s International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power on the topic, in November last year.

Enabling national sustainable development objectives

Nuclear technology, including nuclear power, can play a significant role in climate change mitigation, monitoring and adaptation.

Using Energy, Economic and Environmental (3E) Analysis, the IAEA assists governments in recognising nuclear technology's compatibility with national sustainable development objectives and its possible contributions to socio-economic development, climate protection and energy security.

The IAEA’s widely distributed Energy Modelling Tools and associated expert training and assistance initiatives enable Member States to formulate sustainable energy strategies, ensuring proper energy and environment policy formulation.

The IAEA is also working to catalyse evolution and innovation in nuclear reactor technology and non-electric applications of nuclear power. Because cogeneration is energy efficient, its use leads to cost savings as well as reduced GHG emissions. The use of nuclear energy for cogeneration provides many economic, environmental and efficiency-related benefits.

Nuclear Solutions for Air Pollution

“Non-energy nuclear applications such as radiation technology can play a significant role in cleaning up air pollution to meet regulatory requirements and to protect the environment,” said Joao Osso Junior, Head of the Radioisotope Products & Radiation Technology Section at the IAEA.The IAEA helps countries convert fossil fuel emissions into high quality agricultural fertilizers with radiation technology.”

Electron beam accelerators - machines that produce beams of electron radiation - are a multi-pollutant treatment technology, which simultaneously remove air pollutants such as SO2 and NOX in a single step with no waste generation. Conventional technologies use various chemical and physical processes that have a similar efficiency in removing both NOX and SO2 pollutants, but are more costly to install and operate, and generate waste that requires special methods to dispose of, Osso Junior explained.

An IAEA-supported project in Poland has helped the country build a full-scale electron beam accelerator facility to treat flue gases from coal-fuelled power plants, leading to a significant reduction in emissions of SO2, NOX and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

“Radiation technology is green, cost- and time-effective, and a very useful tool in combatting air pollution,” said Osso.

Isotopic and nuclear techniques are also applied to monitor the pathways of greenhouse gases and particles through the atmosphere, predict their distribution and estimate their impact on ecosystems.

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