Nuclear Phase-out Is a Backward-looking Policy

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the phased closing of nuclear power plants in the last two decades had led to an increase in Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions of 36.3 megatons a year in Germany. For context, that is about as much CO2 as would be released from power 6.5 million homes in a year. This could potentially kill 1,100 people each year. Unfortunately, Germany is not the only place experiencing the negative effects of closing nuclear power plants. So too is New York City.

The adverse effects of phasing out nuclear power plants could lead to significantly more environmental and human harm than good. The negative environmental impact of New York and Germany‘s power plant closures should be a warning that premature closure of nuclear plants will exacerbate climate change, adversely affect the economy and cause thousands of unnecessary deaths each year.

Nuclear power is power released in nuclear reactions that can be converted to electric power. Critics oppose nuclear power due to safety concerns and fears over disposing of radioactive waste. In addition, critics including the National Reactor Innovation Center have argued nuclear reactors are simply too expensive and take too long to build.

Despite these concerns, the federal government must recognize that nuclear power offers a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels and is more reliable than wind or solar power. In addition, nuclear power plants occupy less space on the landscape than solar or wind farms. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI),  by relying primarily on nuclear power, the United States avoided emitting more than 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emission in 2019, which is the equivalent of removing 100 million cars off the road.

New York is currently facing the harsh reality of closing its primary nuclear plant, Indian Point, which produced most of the city’s electricity without emitting harmful greenhouse gasses. However, the closure of Indian Point has caused New York to transition to burning fossil fuels, the main contributor to climate change. Carlos Garcia, an environmental group policy planner with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, said his organization “wanted Indian Point to close but not if it resulted in an increasing reliance on fossil fuel and more pollution.” Since the closure of Indian Point, gas-fired generators powered 40% of the state’s power in 2020, up from 36% in 2019.

Increased reliance on burning fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases should not be a valid substitute for closing power plants. The U.S should refrain from replacing nuclear with an alternative that poses a more significant threat to our planet than the concern over radioactive waste.

The elimination of the nuclear industry could also have a significant impact on the U.S. economy. The nuclear industry contributes $40-50 billion to the economy and employs over 100,000 workers. Eliminating nuclear power not only means increasing greenhouse gas emissions, but also losing this significant economic value and limiting the workers’ economic security.

The economic consequences of abandoning nuclear are not abstract concerns but have already been felt in New York. The closure of New York’s Indian point has caused the loss of about 1,000 jobs and $7 million in revenue for the local community.

The adverse effect of Germany’s decision to phase out all nuclear power plants should also pose a wake-up call for the United States. A study published by the NBER suggests that Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power was costly and deadly to the environment. The NBER study revealed that the phaseout led to an increase in CO2 emission of 36.3 Mt per year and a 13% increase in exposure to harmful gases after the phaseout. The phaseout resulted in estimated climate change damage of $1.8 billion.

The study also revealed that the increased toxic exposure likely killed an additional 1,100 people per year from respiratory or cardiovascular illnesses.

Germany and New York’s experience of closing nuclear power plants should serve as a cautionary tale for the United States. Their experience shows that the phaseout of nuclear plants is a backward-looking policy that, if pursued, will come at the expense of public health, the environment, and jobs. The solution to climate change cannot exacerbate the factors contributing to global warming, namely the increased emissions of greenhouse gasses. Moreover, replacing nuclear power plants that produce no greenhouse gas emissions with fossil fuels that expose the environment to harmful pollution is counterintuitive. Therefore, rather than eliminating nuclear plants, which provide a clean reliable energy source, the U.S should focus on investing and improving outdated nuclear power plants that contribute to achieving sustainable energy and minimize its adverse effects on society, the economy, and the environment.

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