NUCLEAR POWERShutting Down Nuclear Power Could Increase Air Pollution

By Jennifer Chu

Published 11 April 2023

Nearly 20 percent of today’s electricity in the United States comes from nuclear power. If reactors are retired, polluting energy sources that fill the gap could cause more than 5,000 premature deaths, researchers estimate.

Nearly 20 percent of today’s electricity in the United States comes from nuclear power. The U.S. has the largest nuclear fleet in the world, with 92 reactors scattered around the country. Many of these power plants have run for more than half a century and are approaching the end of their expected lifetimes.

Policymakers are debating whether to retire the aging reactors or reinforce their structures to continue producing nuclear energy, which many consider a low-carbon alternative to climate-warming coal, oil, and natural gas.

Now, MIT researchers say there’s another factor to consider in weighing the future of nuclear power: air quality. In addition to being a low carbon-emitting source, nuclear power is relatively clean in terms of the air pollution it generates. Without nuclear power, how would the pattern of air pollution shift, and who would feel its effects?

The MIT team took on these questions in a new study appearing today in Nature Energy. They lay out a scenario in which every nuclear power plant in the country has shut down, and consider how other sources such as coal, natural gas, and renewable energy would fill the resulting energy needs throughout an entire year.

Their analysis reveals that indeed, air pollution would increase, as coal, gas, and oil sources ramp up to compensate for nuclear power’s absence. This in itself may not be surprising, but the team has put numbers to the prediction, estimating that the increase in air pollution would have serious health effects, resulting in an additional 5,200 pollution-related deaths over a single year.

If, however, more renewable energy sources become available to supply the energy grid, as they are expected to by the year 2030, air pollution would be curtailed, though not entirely. The team found that even under this heartier renewable scenario, there is still a slight increase in air pollution in some parts of the country, resulting in a total of 260 pollution-related deaths over one year.

When they looked at the populations directly affected by the increased pollution, they found that Black or African American communities — a disproportionate number of whom live near fossil-fuel plants — experienced the greatest exposure.