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Nuclear power generation phase-outs redistribute US air quality and climate-related mortality risk


We explore how nuclear shut-downs in the United States could affect air pollution, climate and health with existing and alternative grid infrastructure. We develop a dispatch model to estimate emissions of CO2, NOx and SO2 from each electricity-generating unit, feeding these emissions into a chemical transport model to calculate effects on ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Our scenario of removing nuclear power results in compensation by coal, gas and oil, resulting in increases in PM2.5 and ozone that lead to an extra 5,200 annual mortalities. Changes in CO2 emissions lead to an order of magnitude higher mortalities throughout the twenty-first century, incurring US$11–180 billion of damages from 1 year of emissions. A scenario exploring simultaneous closures of nuclear and coal plants redistributes health impacts and a scenario with increased penetration of renewables reduces health impacts. Inequities in exposure to pollution are persistent across all scenarios—Black or African American people are exposed to the highest relative levels of pollution.

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Fig. 1: Maps of differences in annual energy generation by EGU across our scenarios.
Fig. 2: Map of changes in concentration and mortalities in no nuclear compared to the base.
Fig. 3: Distribution of exposure and mortalities by race and ethnicity for each county in no nuclear.
Fig. 4: Distribution of exposure and mortalities by race and ethnicity for each county in no nuclear + no coal.
Fig. 5: Map of changes in concentration and mortalities in no nuclear + no coal and no nuclear + renewables compared to the base.
Fig. 6: Distribution of exposure and mortalities by race and ethnicity for each county in no nuclear + renewables.

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Data availability

All data necessary to do the analysis are available at This includes the diagnostic files necessary to rerun the chemical transport model simulations and the processed data for analysis. Data to run GEOS-Chem are available on its data portals68. Data to run the US-EGO model are publicly available through EIA forms 923 and 906/920 (ref. 69), EIA form 930 (ref. 70), the EPA NEEDS v.5.16 platform43, as well as the EPA eGRID database56. We use publicly available census data60 for state-level population estimates and census data63 for evaluation of impacts by race and ethnicity. We use the Global Burden of Disease for mortality rates by state59. EPA Air Quality System and IMPROVE monitor data for observation comparisons to GEOS-Chem model output are publicly available71,72. We use cartopy for our basemaps73.

Code availability

All code necessary for the analysis is available on Zenodo. This includes (1) US-EGO model code available at and (2) analysis code available at GEOS-Chem is an open-access community model and can be downloaded according to instructions on its website74.


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We acknowledge support from the NIEHS Toxicology Training Grant no. T32-ES007020 and the MIT Martin Family Society of Fellows for Sustainability (L.F.). This publication was supported by US EPA grant R835872 (L.F., N.S. and S.E.). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the grantee and do not necessarily represent the official views of the US EPA. Further, the US EPA does not endorse the purchase of any commercial products or services mentioned in the publication. We thank the GEOS-Chem support team for their assistance in resolving issues with boundary conditions of our nested simulations and vertical read-in of the new EPA emissions files. We thank B. Henderson for leading the development of new EPA 2016 emissions files for GEOS-Chem.

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L.F. and N.S. were responsible for conceptualization. L.F., G.C. and A.J. undertook energy modelling. L.F. and S.E. undertook chemical transport modelling. L.F., S.E. and N.S. conducted the analysis. L.F. wrote the original draft and all authors were involved in editing and reviewing the paper.

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Correspondence to Lyssa M. Freese.

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Nature Energy thanks Jonathan Buonocore, Edson Severnini and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Methods, Discussion, Figs. 1–12 and Tables 1–10.

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Freese, L.M., Chossière, G.P., Eastham, S.D. et al. Nuclear power generation phase-outs redistribute US air quality and climate-related mortality risk. Nat Energy 8, 492–503 (2023).

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