MIT Study: Nuclear Power Shutdown Could Lead To Increased Deaths

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According to a new MIT report, the retirement of nuclear power plants in the United States could result in an increase in fossil fuel burning to fill in energy gaps. This would lead to over 5,000 premature deaths from increased air pollution.

Nuclear power accounts for nearly 20 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S., and there are 92 nuclear reactors spread across the country.

Air pollution may be reduced if more renewable energy is available by 2030. However, there could still be an increase in deaths due to pollution.

New research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows

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If nuclear power plants in the United States are shut down, burning coal, oil and natural gas as a way to fill the energy gap will cause more than 5 000 premature deaths.


The MIT team tackled the questions raised in a recent study published in Nature Energy.

Nearly 20% of the electricity used in the United States today comes from

nuclear power.

The U.S. nuclear fleet is the largest in the world with 92 reactors spread across the country. These power plants, many of which have been in operation for over half a century, are nearing the end of their life expectancy.

The debate is whether or not to upgrade the reactors to produce nuclear energy. Many consider it a low carbon alternative to climate warming coal, oil and

Natural gas


Researchers at MIT say that air quality is another important factor to take into account when weighing the future prospects of nuclear energy. Nuclear power, in addition to emitting low levels of carbon dioxide, is also relatively clean when it comes to air pollution. How would air pollution change without nuclear power? Who would be affected by its effects if it didn't exist?

The team envisioned a scenario where all nuclear power plants in the country have shut down. They then considered how coal, natural gases, and renewable sources would meet the energy requirements for an entire year.

The analysis shows that air pollution will increase as coal, oil, and gas sources are ramped up to compensate for the absence of nuclear power. The prediction may not surprise you, but the team has backed it up with numbers. They estimate that air pollution will increase by 5,200 over the course of a year, as coal, gas, and oil sources ramp up to compensate for the absence of nuclear power.

Air pollution will be reduced, but not completely, if more renewable sources are available to power the grid by 2030. Even under the more optimistic renewable scenario, air pollution is still increasing in some areas of the country. This has resulted in 260 deaths from pollution over a year.

They found that the population directly affected by pollution increased was a large number of people.

Black or African American Communities - of which a disproportionately large number live near fossil fuel plants - suffered the most exposure.

Lyssa, the lead author, is a graduate student at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

This adds another layer to the equation of environmental health and social impact when thinking about nuclear shut downs. The conversation is often focused on local risks due accidents, mining or long-term impacts.

Noelle Selin, a professor at MIT's Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, and EAPS, who wrote the study, added, 'Air quality hasn't been a focal point of this discussion in the debate over whether to keep nuclear power plants operating. We found that the air pollution produced by fossil fuel plants was so harmful that any increase in it, like a nuclear shut down, would have a substantial impact on some people.

Co-authors of the study from MIT include: Principal Research Scientist Sebastian Eastham, Guillaume Chossiere SM ’17, PhD ’20, and Alan Jenn of University of California at Davis.

Future phase-outs

In the past, when nuclear power plants closed, fossil fuels were used more. In 1985, Tennessee Valley reactors were shut down, causing a surge in coal consumption. Meanwhile, in 2012, the shutdown of a California plant led to a rise in natural gas. In Germany, the nuclear power industry has been almost entirely phased out. Coal-fired energy was used to fill in the gaps.

The MIT team was interested in how the U.S. grid would react if the nuclear power industry were to be completely phased out.

Freese: "We wanted to consider what changes we could expect in the future for the energy grid."

We knew coal usage was decreasing, and a lot of research had already been done on the impact that this would have on air pollution. No one had examined the air quality of nuclear power which was also on the decline.

The team in the new study used a grid dispatch model created by Jenn to evaluate how the U.S. Energy System would react to the shutdown of nuclear energy. The model simulates every power plant across the nation and runs continuously in order to estimate the energy demand in 64 regions throughout the country, hour by hour.

The model operates in a similar way to the real energy market, where plants that produce the least expensive energy are given the priority to provide the grid. The model was fed data from each plant on its changing energy and emissions costs over the course of a year. The team then ran the model in different scenarios. These included: a grid without nuclear power; a grid similar to the baseline grid today that includes nuclear energy; and a grid that does not include nuclear power but also incorporates additional renewable sources expected to be added to the grid by 2030.

The researchers combined each simulation with a model of atmospheric chemistry to simulate the movement of each plant's emissions around the country. They then overlayed these tracks on maps showing population density. They calculated the premature mortality risk for populations that were in the path pollution.

System Response

The analysis revealed a pattern. Without nuclear power, the air pollution in general worsened, especially in regions along the East Coast where there are most nuclear power plants. The team found that without these plants, coal and gas production increased, leading to 5,200 deaths from pollution across the nation.

The grid is compensating for the absence of nuclear power, and they calculated that this will lead to more premature deaths due to the climate effects. Climate-related deaths could increase by 160,000 over the next century due to this extra carbon dioxide.

Freese said, "We must be careful about the way we retire nuclear power plants in order to consider them as a part of a system. Even if the shutdown of a source that does not emit direct emissions leads to an increase in emissions due to the grid system's response, it can still cause emissions.

Selin said, "This could mean we need to deploy more renewables to fill the gap left by nuclear energy, which is essentially an emission-free source of energy. We will suffer a drop in air quality if we don't act.

It is always valuable to do this kind of work. There are always questions about the input assumptions and the model.

There is still some impact when a carbon footprint has already been paid and a new facility or fuel source is used to replace the old one.

There is also the issue of political pressure that doesn't appear in either the legacy press or the modern internet sites.

The demand for power is increasing dramatically.

John Kudla, a fellow, came up with a few numbers. Not a model. Just a list on a napkin of what political force will entail.

This destroys the idea of substituting nuclear power with renewables or fossil fuels to generate current in order to meet political demands. The elites will run the energy sector of the economy, not the market.

Since 100 years, electrical power has been the driving force behind modern life.

It is a huge idea and a cause for concern that fossil fuels and nuclear power are removed from the foundation of energy sources. All hope for a better living standard in general is gone.

Only the elite and very wealthy can expect to live a life similar to what we have today. It's only natural that they will be in charge of the system.