What is the world’s most dangerous nuclear power plant? Fukushima? Chernobyl? Zaporizhzhya? The answer is none of these. It is the one closed prematurely. Because when a nuclear plant closes down, it’s typically a coal plant that opens, contributing not only to climate change but also to poor health.
By Rauli Partanen
Image: Markus Distelrath/Pexels
The Germans complained about Belgium’s nuclear power plants and wanted them closed, even though the Belgian regulator had judged them safe to operate. The Lithuanians worry about reactors being built in Belarus, even though they are among the most modern and safe ever made, and inspections have found no major flaws.
Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear organisations are likewise raising the alarm about the safety of practically every nuclear power plant on the planet. Wherever there’s a nuclear plant, it seems that fear of its impact on public health follows.
But does reality justify these fears?
As we can see in this graph (which is from Our World In Data), nuclear is the safest way to produce reliable baseload energy, and in the same range as wind and solar. These figures account for all aspects: the possibility of accidents, a plant’s life cycle, mining, fuel production, and waste management.
If nuclear is our safest energy source, it means that whenever we close a nuclear power plant prematurely or fail to build a new one because of political (and therefore financial) risks, another, more dangerous source will be used instead.
Even replacing nuclear with wind or solar power, although these are remarkably safe energy sources, is a bad idea. Yes, we can (and should) build wind and solar, but if we use them to replace nuclear, we are not using them to replace coal. From a safety and emissions perspective, we would be spending money and resources to improve neither.
History shows that fossil fuels have often replaced closed nuclear plants. For example, political difficulties in restarting the nuclear fleet in Japan after the Fukushima accident has led to plans for dozens of new coal plants. In the United States, closures of nuclear plants have led to increased natural gas and coal consumption. In the early 1990s in Finland, politicians refused permission to build a new nuclear reactor, which led to the construction of the country’s biggest coal plant. A similar thing happened a decade earlier, as politicians declined to build the SECURE reactor to supply Helsinki with district heat, and gas plants were built instead.
Nuclear is the safest way to produce reliable baseload energy, in the same range as wind and solar
Perhaps the most salient example comes from Germany. Around 2000, Germany decided to close its nuclear power plants prematurely, instead of its coal plants, as part of its Energiewende. From the standpoint of limiting the damaging effects of carbon emissions on public health and climate this was a disaster, as the expansion of solar and wind was backed up by fossil fuel plants.
Several reports were published on the health consequences of air pollution in 2016. These found that respiratory issues such as asthma have often led to deteriorating health and even premature death. Europe’s Dark Cloud and its sequel, Lifting Europe’s Dark Cloud, revealed the dangerous consequences of coal combustion on the health of Europeans. An OECD report on the economic consequences of outdoor pollution showed the staggering global health and human costs of air pollution from fuel combustion today, and what the likely trajectory of our burning habits will cost in the future.
All three make for sobering reading.
Premature deaths caused by coal sorted by emitting and impacted country. Image source: Europe’s Dark Cloud (2016), published by CAN, HEAL, WWF and Sandbag.
According to Europe’s Dark Cloud, coal caused over 22,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2013, largely due to air pollution. According to its sequel report, even as air pollution regulations have tightened, coal plants that were exempt from the latest EU directives accounted for 60% (13,700) of these fatalities. Even if Europe’s situation slowly improves as older coal plants retire and are replaced by something else (new coal plants, natural gas, bio, wind, solar and nuclear, depending on the country), the global situation is certain to get worse.
According to the OECD’s report, the current annual health costs from outdoor pollution are set to rise from $21 billion in 2015 to $176 billion per year (in 2010 USD).
Coal combustion causes more sickness and death every single day than civilian nuclear power has caused in its entire history
From this perspective, it is both ridiculous and extremely insensitive for Germans to demand that Belgium close its nuclear plants because of safety concerns, as they did some years ago. The Belgian regulator has judged them safe to operate and is best situated to make this call, not the public, media or anti-nuclear activists, and certainly not German politicians.
Roughly 3,630 Germans died prematurely in 2013 due to coal pollution from plants in and around Germany. In the same year, 270 Belgium citizens died prematurely each year because of German coal pollution. Fatalities from civilian nuclear reactors or nuclear accidents in Germany or Belgium – or anywhere else in the Western world – were very close to zero. Actually, coal combustion causes more sickness and death every single day than civilian nuclear power has caused in its entire history.
To make the maths provocatively clear: we could have a Chernobyl-sized accident every year in Europe and it would still be a significant public health improvement, assuming we simultaneously got rid of all our coal plants and eradicated the self-imposed deaths they cause.
Many European countries are thinking about shutting down and not rebuilding their nuclear fleets, while selling these plans to the public on nuclear safety concerns. By doing so, they are in fact endangering the very safety of the public they supposedly protect.
We should be closing coal instead.
Rauli Partanen, a Finland-based energy analyst, is a board member and co-founder of Suomen Ekomodernistit, RePlanet’s member organisation in Finland. He’s the author or co-author of several books including Climate Gamble, The Age of Energy and Writing About Energy. This article is an updated version of a blog post on Energy Reporters.