In a paper published in December 2019, researchers examine the impact of Germany’s shift away from nuclear energy toward coal plants between 2011 and 2017.
Led by researchers from UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and Carnegie Mellon University, the study focused on how the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 affected nuclear production capabilities in Germany. Between 2011 and 2017, 10 out of the 17 major nuclear reactors in Germany were shut down.
The most significant consequence of the transition away from nuclear energy was the increased levels of air pollution, according to one of the paper’s co-authors, Stephen Jarvis, who is a doctoral student in UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group. Jarvis added that the impacts of air pollution have been prioritized less than issues such as electricity prices and carbon emissions.
“One of the most striking findings in our study is that by far the largest cost of the phase-out is the increased mortality risk associated with exposure to local pollution,” Jarvis said in an email. “Despite this, most of the discussion of the phase-out, both at the time and since, has focused on electricity prices and carbon emissions – air pollution has been a second order consideration at best.”
The immediate impacts of the nuclear phaseout included a significant increase in electricity production in fossil fuel-fired plants, as well as an increase in wholesale electricity prices, according to the study.
The paper also mentions that Germany plans to shut down the seven remaining reactors by 2022. Jarvis added that the results of the study may contribute to the discussion around nuclear energy in the United States.
“The issue of shutting down nuclear plants is currently receiving a lot of attention here in the US,” Jarvis said in the email. “We hope that insights from our study of Germany’s experience can contribute to that ongoing policy debate.”
The key outcome of the study is that it showed the clear economic costs of phasing out nuclear energy, according to nuclear engineering associate professor Massimiliano Fratoni. Fratoni added that the main reasons countries turn away from utilizing nuclear power, despite the fact that it does not produce greenhouse gases, are the possible risks associated with accidents and waste disposal.
Nuclear engineering assistant professor Rachel Slaybaugh added that the benefits of building an infrastructure around nuclear energy outweigh the detriments of relying on coal plants. According to Slaybaugh, the use of nuclear power would help address air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, and can even be used for more than electricity production.
“It’s pretty essential to move to a sustainable and clean source of energy,” Slaybaugh said. “Coal is the main polluting source we have, and it’s a pretty dangerous and impactful energy source. We need to check our values and see whether we value cheaper energy or our lives.”