The Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011 generated deep public anxiety and uncertainty about the future of nuclear energy. However, differently to fossil fuel plants, nuclear plants produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions or air pollutants during power generation. Here we show the effect on air pollution and infant health in the context of the temporary closure of nuclear plants by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the 1980s. After the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission intensified inspections throughout the nation, leading to the shutdown of two large nuclear power plants in the TVA area. In response to that shutdown, electricity generation shifted one to one to coal-fired power plants within TVA, increasing particle pollution in counties where they were located. Consequently, infant health may have deteriorated in the most affected places, indicating deleterious effects to public health.
This is a preview of subscription content
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Goebel, J., Krekel, C., Tiefenbach, T. & Ziebarth, N. R. How natural disasters can affect environmental concerns, risk aversion, and even politics: evidence from Fukushima and three European countries. J. Popul. Econ. 28, 1137–1170 (2015).
Davis, L. W. Prospects for nuclear power. J. Econ. Perspect. 26, 49–66 (2012).
Kharecha, P. A. & Hansen, J. E. Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 4889–4895 (2013).
Sovacool, B. K. et al. Comment on “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power”. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 6715–6717 (2013).
Kharecha, P. A. & Hansen, J. E. Response to comment on “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power”. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 6718–6719 (2013).
Rabilloud, X. Comments on “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power”. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 13896–13899 (2013).
Kharecha, P. A. & Hansen, J. E. Response to comment by Rabilloud on “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power”. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 13900–13901 (2013).
Qvist, S. A. & Brook, B. W. Environmental and health impacts of a policy to phase out nuclear power in Sweden. Energy Policy 84, 1–10 (2015).
Union of Concerned Scientists Browns Ferry Unit 1 (accessed 22 September 2014); ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/nuclear_power/browns-ferry-1-ii.pdf
Union of Concerned Scientists Browns Ferry Unit 2 (accessed 22 September 2014); ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/nuclear_power/browns-ferry-2-ii.pdf
Union of Concerned Scientists Browns Ferry Unit 3 (accessed 22 September 2014); ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/nuclear_power/browns-ferry-3-ii.pdf
Union of Concerned Scientists Sequoyah Unit 1 (accessed 22 September 2014); ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/nuclear_power/sequoyah-1-ii.pdf
Tennessee Valley Authority 1985 Annual Report (1986); https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015081901491;view=1up;seq=7
Almond, D., Chay, K. Y. & Lee, D. L. The costs of low birth weight. Q. J. Econ. 120, 1031–1083 (2005).
Black, S. E., Devereux, P. J. & Salvanes, K. G. From the cradle to the labor market? The effect of birth weight on adult outcomes. Q. J. Econ. 122, 409–439 (2007).
Risnes, K. R. et al. Birthweight and mortality in adulthood: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int. J. Epidemiol. 40, 647–661 (2011).
Chay, K. Y. & Greenstone, M. Air Quality, Infant Mortality, and the Clean Air Act of 1970 NBER Working Paper #10053 (2003).
Historic Form EIA-906 Detailed Data (EIA, accessed 17 July 2014); http://eia.gov/electricity/data/eia923/eia906u.html
Annual Summary Files (EPA, accessed 17 July 2014); http://aqsdr1.epa.gov/aqsweb/aqstmp/airdata/FileFormats.html#_annual_summary_files
NCHS’ Vital Statistics Natality Birth Data (NBER, accessed 17 July 2014); nber.org/data/vital-statistics-natality-data.html
Cullen, J. Measuring the environmental benefits of wind-generated electricity. Am. Econ. J. Econ. Policy 5, 107–133 (2013).
Coggins, A. R. Tennessee Tragedies: Natural, Technological, and Societal Disasters in the Volunteer State (Univ. Tennessee Press, 2011).
Kannan, S., Misra, D., Dvonch, J. & Krisnakamar, A. Exposures to airborne particulate matter and adverse perinatal outcomes: a biologically plausible mechanistic framework for exploring potential effect modification by nutrition. Environ. Health Perspect. 114, 1636–1642 (2006).
Shah, P. S. & Balkhair, T. Air pollution and birth outcomes: a systematic review. Environ. Int. 37, 498–516 (2011).
Feng, S., Gao, D., Liao, F., Zhou, F. & Wang, X. The health effects of ambient PM2.5 and potential mechanisms. Ecotoxicol. Environ. Safety 128, 67–74 (2016).
Isen, A., Rossin-Slater, M. & Walker, W. R. Every breath you take—every dollar you’ll make: the long-term consequences of the clean air act of 1970. J. Polit. Econ. (in the press).
Stieb, D. M., Chen, L., Eshoul, M. & Judek, S. Ambient air pollution, birth weight and preterm birth: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Environ. Res. 117, 100–111 (2012).
Currie, J., Graff-Zivin, J. S., Mullins, J. & Neidell, M. J. What do we know about short and long term effects of early life exposure to pollution? Annu. Rev. Resour. Econ. 6, 217–247 (2014).
Danzer, A. M. & Danzer, N. The long-run consequences of Chernobyl: evidence on subjective well-being, mental health, and welfare. J. Publ. Econ. 135, 47–60 (2016).
Almond, D., Edlund, L. & Palme, M. Chernobyl’s subclinical legacy: prenatal exposure to radioactive fallout and school outcomes in Sweden. Q. J. Econ. 124, 1729–1772 (2009).
Currie, J. & Schwandt, H. Within-mother analysis of seasonal patterns in health at birth. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 12265–12270 (2013).
I am very thankful to J. Apt and R. Walker for detailed feedback on earlier versions of the paper, and M. Jackson for outstanding research assistance. I am also grateful to A. Bento, D. Card, J. Cohon, J. Currie, M. Greenstone, P. Kline, J. Lewis, T. Madeira, J. Rothstein, A. Shertzer, L. Taylor, and seminar participants at Cornell University, UC Berkeley, University of Montreal, University of Pittsburgh, Colby College, the 2015 ASSA/AERE Meetings in Boston, 2nd Economics of Low-Carbon Markets Conference, 3rd IZA Workshop: Labor Market Effects of Environmental Policies, and 36th Meeting of the Brazilian Econometric Society for comments and suggestions. I acknowledge financial support from the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University, and would also like to thank the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) for research support and its generous hospitality during my semester-long visit, when part of this project was executed.
The author declares no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Severnini, E. Impacts of nuclear plant shutdown on coal-fired power generation and infant health in the Tennessee Valley in the 1980s. Nat Energy 2, 17051 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nenergy.2017.51
The downstream air pollution impacts of the transition from coal to natural gas in the United States
Nature Sustainability (2020)
Environmental Health (2018)
Nature Energy (2017)