Research highlight

Tennessee Valley nuclear shutdown affected air pollution and birth weight

Nature Energy

April 4, 2017

The shutdown of two nuclear power plants in the Tennessee Valley, USA, in the 1980s shifted electricity generation to coal-fired power plants, which substantially increased air pollution in the region. The study, published this week in Nature Energy, also finds that in counties that experienced the greatest increases in air pollution levels following the nuclear shutdown, average birth weight decreased by about 5%.

Edson Severnini investigates the effects of the closure of two nuclear plants by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1985 on air pollution and infant health. He finds that in response to the shutdown, electricity generation shifted one-to-one to coal-fired power plants in the Tennessee Valley: each megawatt-hour no longer produced by nuclear power plants (as a result of the shutdown) seems to have been generated by coal-powered plants instead. The author shows that particle pollution (as measured by total suspended particulate) increased in counties where coal-fired plants produced large shares of the electricity originally generated by the two nuclear plants. Moreover, in the counties most affected by particulate pollution, average birth weight - a health indicator that can be used to predict later-life outcomes - decreased by about 134 grams, or 5.4% (when comparing average birth weight for infants born before nuclear shutdown (September 1983 - March 1985) to after shutdown (March 1985 - September 1986)).

The author suggests that decisions to phase out nuclear generation should be weighed against the negative impacts that fossil-fuel-powered electricity generation may have on environmental pollution, and, subsequently, on public health. Further research is needed to determine whether these findings would also apply in other parts of the USA or in other countries. Servernini also notes that although nuclear energy was replaced with coal in the Tennessee Valley, replacement with natural gas or even renewable energy would be more likely in the present day.

In an accompanying News & Views, Michael Shellenberger writes that: “Severnini shows that power lost from these plants was replaced entirely by coal-fired power generation, which increased air pollution.”

doi: 10.1038/nenergy.2017.51

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