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Study Quantifies Cost and Lives Lost Due to German Nuclear Phase-out

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Nathan Wilson's picture
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Nathan Wilson has a bachelor's and a master's degree in electrical engineering, and currently works as a software engineer in the aerospace industry. He is excited about clean energy, and hopes...

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  • Jan 13, 2020

A new study by a team of economists at California and Pennsylvania universities has concluded that the closure of German nuclear power plants, though sold to the public as a way to improve safety, is actually killing 1100* people each year, and is leading to $12B/year in economic loss. 

"We use hourly data on power plant operations and a novel machine learning framework to estimate how plants would have operated differently if the phase-out had not occurred."

The economic loss is primarily due to the increase in local air pollution from burning more coal and lignite for electricity. The mortality loss is the biggest portion at $8.7B (they used $7.9M as the Value of a Statistical Life from a prior German study).   They valued CO2 emissions at $50/tCO2, which totaled a loss of $1.8B per year.  Increased operation of fossil fuel fired power plants added $1.6B in annual costs.  Finally, they credited the phase-out for reducing external costs of nuclear power (waste storage and accidents), but this only amounted to $0.2B (assuming 0.3¢/kWh), bringing the total to $12B in annual losses.

Plants fired with hard coal were the big winners following the closures, with their electricity production up 32%.  Because the closures reduced electricity supply, wholesale electricity prices increased by 3.9%, further boosting profits for all fossil fuel fired plants; profits at hard coal fired plants went up 64%.  

The 2019 paper by Jarvis, Deschenes, and Jha, is summarized here, and is published in its entirety here by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

* According to the paper, air pollution from fossil fuel use (primarily hard coal and lignite) by the German power industry produces 8,550 excess deaths per year, but this would be only 7,407 per year without the phase-out.  This considers closure of 11 GWatts of the German nuclear plants from 2011 through 2017; the remaining 9.5 GWatts of nuclear capacity are scheduled to close by 2022.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 13, 2020

I'm curious how these economic/mortality figures compare with those used by government regulators when making these decisions. What are the differences in methodologies and results?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 15, 2020

Yep, there's plenty of room for differing opinions on the value of a human life.  In Robert Zubrin's 2013 book, "Mars Direct", Zubrin criticizes NASA for being too cautious, and cites data from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis which says that various US government organizations made choice which equated to valuations ranging from $0.8M to $2.7M per life saved for expenditures and regulations.

Maybe German have higher self-esteem than Americans?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 15, 2020

Nathan, as a German-American maybe I should bring it up with my therapist.

But seriously - not sure whether it's necessary to assign a monetary value to a human life, or even helpful. Within any regional economy medical costs and gain or loss in economic productivity both have a quantifiable value, and avoid any nasty detours into more subjective criteria.

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Thank Nathan for the Post!
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