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Closing Nuclear Plants Linked to Higher Risk of Premature Deaths

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As countries worldwide continue to transition to cleaner forms of energy, nuclear power generation is facing an uncertain future. While some countries are investing heavily in nuclear power as a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels, others are choosing to phase out their nuclear power plants due to concerns about safety and waste disposal.

A new study published in the journal Nature Energy by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and published by India Today has shed light on the potential impact of shutting down nuclear power plants in the US. The study aimed to understand the shift in air pollution patterns and who would be affected by it.  

According to the study, removing nuclear power plants from the energy equation would require the addition of coal, gas, and oil to the system. The analysis showed that adding fossil fuels would lead to an increase in the PM2.5 concentration and ozone, resulting in an extra 5,200 annual deaths. The study focused on the US, but similar scenes could be expected worldwide if nuclear power plants vanish.  

The MIT researchers developed a model to estimate each electricity-generating unit’s carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide emissions. They then fed these emissions into a chemical transport model to calculate the effects on ground-level ozone and delicate particulate matter (PM2.5). Even with this more strong renewable scenario, researchers observed that air pollution will climb somewhat in some locations, resulting in an additional 260 pollution-related fatalities per year.  

“This adds one more layer to the environmental health and social impacts equation when you’re thinking about nuclear shutdowns,” says Lyssa Freese, the study’s primary author, “where the conversation often focuses on local risks due to accidents and mining or long-term climate impacts.”The model anticipated around 5,200 deaths each year. More carbon dioxide will be discharged into the atmosphere as the grid compensates for the loss of nuclear power, increasing the risk of premature mortality due to climate change.

The climatic repercussions of this increased carbon dioxide intake are expected to kill 160,000 people in the United States alone during the next century.”We need to be thoughtful about how we retire nuclear power plants if we’re trying to think about them as part of an energy system,” says Freese. The study highlights the importance of considering the broader impacts of energy generation when deciding to phase out nuclear power plants.  

Moreover, the research showed that the inequities in exposure to pollution are persistent across all scenarios, with Black or African American people being exposed to the highest relative pollution levels. A scenario exploring simultaneous closures of nuclear and coal plants redistributes health impacts, and a scenario with increased penetration of renewables reduces health impacts.  

In conclusion, the study suggests that shutting down nuclear power plants in the US would redistribute the country’s air quality and climate-related mortality risk, which could have severe health and environmental impacts on the population.