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Wednesday, May 31, 2023
Mugglehead Magazine
Alternative investment news based in Vancouver, B.C.

Alternative Energy

Nuclear plant shutdown would create devastating consequences in fossil fuel levels: MIT study

If renewable energy sources became widely available as alternative supplies to the electricity grid, air pollution could be reduced

Nuclear plant closure for a year would drastic uptick in fossil fuel usage: MIT study
Photo by Frédéric Paulussen via Unsplash.

A recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) revealed that if the United States were to close its nuclear power facilities, the subsequent increase in coal, gas, and oil consumption to compensate for the energy deficit could lead to a deterioration in air quality. This change could potentially result in an additional 5,200 pollution-related fatalities over the course of one year.

This new study comes as policymakers are determining whether or not to shutter many of the 92 aging reactors scattered throughout the country, many of which having been running for half a century and are approaching the end of their life cycles.

However, if renewable energy sources became widely available as alternative supplies to the electricity grid, air pollution could be reduced. Researchers uncovered there would still be a slight increase in air pollution in some regions, which would result in 260 deaths related to pollution over a period of one year.

Upon examining the populations most impacted by the heightened pollution, it was discovered that Black communities, who disproportionately reside in close proximity to fossil-fuel facilities, faced the highest levels of exposure.

“In the debate over keeping nuclear power plants open, air quality has not been a focus of that discussion,” adds study author Noelle Selin, a professor in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS).

“What we found was that air pollution from fossil fuel plants is so damaging, that anything that increases it, such as a nuclear shutdown, is going to have substantial impacts, and for some people more than others.”

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Nuclear power plants historically spike fossil fuel consumption

In the past, the closure of nuclear power plants has led to increased fossil fuel consumption. For instance, coal usage spiked after reactor closures in Tennessee Valley in 1985, and natural gas increased following a 2012 California plant shutdown. In Germany, coal-fired power initially rose as nuclear power was phased out.

The MIT team recognized these trends and investigated how the US energy grid would react if nuclear power were completely phased out. The researchers focused on potential future changes in the energy grid, noting that while coal usage was declining, nuclear power was also decreasing. No previous studies had explored the connection between air quality and nuclear power.

The team utilized an energy grid dispatch model to simulate the US energy system’s response to a nuclear power shutdown. The model imitates the production of each power plant in the country and estimates hourly energy demands in 64 regions. It operates similarly to the actual energy market, prioritizing plants producing the cheapest energy at any given time.

Using available data on each plant’s changing emissions and energy costs over a year, the researchers ran the model under different scenarios: no nuclear power, a baseline grid resembling the current situation, and a grid without nuclear power that includes additional renewables expected by 2030. They combined each simulation with an atmospheric chemistry model to determine the paths of emissions and their effects on population density. They then calculated the risk of premature death based on exposure levels.

The Watts Bar reactor in Tennessee. Image from TVA Web Team Watts_Bar-6 via Wikimedia Commons.

The analysis revealed that without nuclear power, air pollution generally worsened, especially on the East Coast where nuclear plants are primarily located. In the absence of nuclear power, coal and gas plant production increased. The researchers also determined that more people would likely die prematurely from climate impacts due to increased carbon dioxide emissions as the grid compensates for the lack of nuclear power and indicated this additional carbon dioxide could lead to 160,000 extra deaths over the next century.

Freese emphasized the importance of considering the role of nuclear power plants within the energy system, as their shutdown could lead to increased emissions. Selin suggested deploying more renewables to fill the gap left by nuclear power, a zero-emissions energy source, to prevent unanticipated reductions in air quality.

“This adds one more layer to the environmental health and social impacts equation when you’re thinking about nuclear shutdowns, where the conversation often focuses on local risks due to accidents and mining or long-term climate impacts,” says Lyssa Freese, lead author and graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).


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