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To Give Developing Nations Clean Air, Give Them Nuclear Energy

Matt Wald
The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

On Halloween, millions of American kids carried little orange UNICEF boxes from door to door, collecting coins to help provide poor children with food and medicine. But children in the developing world need more. A UNICEF report issued Oct. 31 shows that in addition to the money, the clean air in the boxes would have helped, too. Bad air now rivals malaria and unsafe water as a cause of premature deaths.
UNICEF is shedding a light on air quality in the developing world.*
The problem cries out for nuclear energy.

The authors of the report estimate that 300 million children live in areas with outdoor air pollution at least six times higher than United Nations standards. That research is based on satellite imagery of outdoor air; millions more live in households where the indoor air is heavy with smoke from cookstoves.

Diseases that are caused by air pollution or made worse by it kill nearly 600,000 children under age 5 every year, the report said. Much of the developing world suffers from air problems that citizens in advanced economies have mostly forgotten, like indoor air pollution from burning wood, straw, coal, garbage or dung for cooking and heating. The UNICEF report cites a study from Zimbabwe that found that children living in households that burn those fuels were more than twice as likely to have acute lower respiratory infections, and more than 3,000 children 4 and under die from that disease every year. The problem is concentrated in Asia, India and Africa.

And projections are that the air will get worse, with more cars and factories. Ironically, another cause of bad air is electrification. As third world countries electrify, they are burning a lot more coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The solution is more electricity, not less. Electricity will replace dung used for cooking and kerosene used for indoor lighting. It will supply clean water and allow proper sanitation. It allows refrigeration, which improves nutrition. It can replace motor scooters and motorcycles, which are often far more polluting than cars, and which are a major part of transportation in third-world cities. And it will increase productivity and create healthy economies that lift people out of poverty.

In big countries with big pollution problems, like India and China, nuclear is already playing a role and the plans are for many more big reactors. In small countries with big pollution problems, a new class of reactors is coming to the fore, small modular reactors. These can be factory-built by specialists and then shipped all over the world, to places that do not have construction expertise in nuclear projects but that need electricity. Small reactors are good for power grids that are small and cannot accept power from giant generators. And in places where demand is growing each year, the modular design makes it possible to bring on more capacity in small increments.

Chongqing, China.*
This clean air benefit is independent of another crying need: meeting energy demands without contributing to the threat of global warming. Over its whole lifecycle, including construction and fuel production, nuclear power produces only tiny amounts of carbon dioxide, less than half as much as solar power, and a few percentage points more than wind. Unlike the cleanest fossil sources, they do not emit any particulates, smog precursors or sulfur that causes acid rain.

Most developing countries are also pursuing wind and solar power. Those work especially well in remote places, off the national grid. When they are available, they can augment the output of diesel generators, which are particularly dirty and costly to run. For larger systems, wind and sun can also help save fossil fuels but because they are intermittent, they need conventional capacity back them up. And most Third World countries are already short of capacity. Wind and sun provide clean energy, but nuclear provides both clean energy and reliable capacity, and reliability is essential for economic growth.

PS: nuclear energy accomplishes many of the same goals in this country as well. U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) points out that air pollution here is linked to childhood asthma and other ills. Nuclear energy reduces the size of that problem.

*UNICEF photo by Antonio Zugaldia through the Creative Commons license. Picture of Chongqing, China by Leo Fung also through Creative Commons license.

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