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MIT: Nuclear Phase-out Could Lead to Worsening Air Quality, Health Hazards


While many critics claim that the use of nuclear power poses serious hazards to human health and environmental safety, a recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published in the journal Nature Energy on April 10th says that phasing out nuclear power plants could lead to even more people dying because of air and water pollution.

Titled Nuclear Power Generation Phase-outs Redistribute US Air Quality and Climate-Related Mortality Risk, the study explores how phasing out the use of nuclear power could lead to a dangerous increase in environmental pollutants that would, in turn, exacerbate climate change and cause a number of health issues, particularly those related to the respiratory system.

The team behind the study developed a dispatch model in order to simulate emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and sulfur oxide from each fossil-fueled generating plant in the United States. The recorded amounts were then fed into a chemical transport model that calculated the effects on ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter.

Lysa Freese of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, the lead author of the study, says that no one has ever studied the link between worsening air quality and the shutdown of nuclear power plants. As a result, their findings presented a devastating truth: the air pollution generated by fossil-fueled power plants is already at dangerous levels; shutting down nuclear power plants would lead to an even greater amount of these toxic emissions.

Disturbing Scenarios

In the team’s control scenario wherein nuclear power sources were removed completely, compensating for the generation shortfall using coal, gas, and oil-powered generating plants led to a substantial increase in particulate matter and ozone. In turn, these resulted in an additional 5,200 deaths a year. This was on top of the number of premature deaths caused by climate-related issues driven by excessive carbon dioxide emissions.

The study concluded that changes in the amount of carbon dioxide emissions would lead to a greater number of pollution-driven deaths throughout the 21st century. Likewise, the emissions recorded within a single year could lead to around $11 billion to $180 billion in environmental damages.

On the other hand, the team also presented a scenario wherein nuclear and coal-powered plants shut down at the same time, essentially redistributing health impacts. In another scenario where other renewable power sources like solar facilities and wind farms came into play, there was a significant reduction in the adverse effects on human health.

But while the team also took into account the possibility of renewable energy resources becoming more available, they still noted a slight increase in air pollution in different parts of the country. This scenario resulted in around 260 pollution-related deaths a year.

Notable Inequities

The study also notes that several regions in the Eastern US, where many of the country’s nuclear power plants are located, stand to see an overall worsening of air quality in the event that all the plants are shut down.

Likewise, there were also notable inequities when it came to exposure to pollution as African-American people appear to be the most highly exposed to air pollution.

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