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Impacts of nuclear plant shutdown on coal-fired power generation and infant health in the Tennessee Valley in the 1980s


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.

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Figure 1: Timing of the TVA nuclear shutdown.
Figure 2: Map of TVA power plants and TSP monitors in 1985.
Figure 3: Impacts of nuclear shutdown in the TVA in the 1980s.
Figure 4: Impact on birth weight from placebos versus actual nuclear shutdown.
Figure 5: Impact on birth weight via event study around nuclear shutdown.

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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.

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Correspondence to Edson Severnini.

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Supplementary Figures 1–2, Supplementary Tables 1–16, Supplementary Notes 1–3 and Supplementary References. (PDF 3460 kb)

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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).

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