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CMU/DAI study finds shutting down US nuclear plants would have significant negative economic and environmental consequences

Shutting down reactors in high risk earthquake or tornado zones, or in areas with populations of more than 10 million would result in 24,728 MW lost capacity, an added annual cost of $ 4.7B, 166.73 additional MT of CO2 and 0.52 MT additional SO2, according to the model. Click to enlarge.

Shutting down nuclear power plants in the US would have significant economic and environmental consequences, according to a new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and DAI Management Consultants, Inc. Shifting from nuclear to other types of power plants could affect the reliability of the electricity supply, electricity costs, air pollution, carbon emissions, and the reliance on fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, the researchers said.

The recent earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan has led to an international reevaluation of policies related to nuclear power. Germany has decided to shutdown all nine of its nuclear power plants by 2022, and Switzerland will shutdown all five of its plants by 2032. Nuclear power currently supplies 25% of Germany’s power, 39% of Switzerland’s power, and 20% of the electricity consumed in the US.

The gauge the impact of similar decisions in the US, the researchers modeled all power generation facilities for each North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) region—a total of more than 16,000 plants, incorporating historical capacity factor, emissions rates and variable costs, including 104 reactors located at 65 nuclear plants. They turned off nuclear plants based on risk/decision criteria such as being in an earthquake, tornado or hurricane zone. The lost production was made up by increasing the output of non-nuclear power plants with extra capacity in order of marginal cost (cheapest first).

The team used NERC forced outage rates for coal and gas to determine available capacity and assumed all production was made up within each NERC region. The calculated cost of generation with the new mix of plants was a lower bound. They did not model changes in cost caused by additional demand, nor did they include transmission and distribution costs. Pipeline capacity would be reached for some regions well before demand is met, they said, and for some scenarios, increased demand would send natural gases prices much higher.

The model—which is based on a spreadsheet and can be downloaded—offers the options of shutting down all plants or using a filter to select a subset of plants. Filter criteria include 3 levels of hurricane, earthquake, or tornado risks; the population of the surrounding county; the age of the reactor; and the politics of the state (Red or Blue) based on the 2008 Presidential election.

Natural disaster risks are approximate based on various sources; risk levels are designed to show general trends, not a detailed quantitative risk study. The cost increase is measured in $/MWh; the increase in emissions (NOx, SO2, and CO2) is measured in millions of tons; the increase in coal consumption is measured in millions of tons; and the increase in additional natural gas consumption is measured in millions of mmBTUs. Regional analysis is done for one metric at a time and can be shown for amount of increase or percent change.

The number of replacement wind turbines is estimated using 70 meter, 2.5 MW turbines operating at 25% capacity.

Turning off a single large nuclear power plant could require dozens of coal and gas-fired plants to ramp up production to make up the difference, said Paul Fischbeck, a professor of social and decision sciences and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon.

Replacing the Brown’s Ferry plant in Alabama with a mix of coal and gas power plants would cause CO2 emissions to increase by approximately 24 million tons each year. That’s the same as the annual emissions of over 4 million cars.

—Paul Fischbeck, a professor of social and decision sciences and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon

If plants that are in tornado alley were shutdown, national coal consumption for power generation would go up over 160 million tons or 16%, at an additional cost of $9 billion more for electricity every year said David Rode, managing director of DAI.

Given time and enough investment, some of the generation lost by shutting down nuclear plants could be made up by developing renewable resources and improving energy efficiency, but the size of the potential shortfall is daunting, the researchers said.

To replace the nuclear plants located in counties with populations over half a million with wind power would require the construction of 25,000 large wind turbines on land greater than one and half times the size of Rhode Island. Nuclear power is a major component of the nation’s electricity generating capability, and policies that lead to its curtailment must be carefully planned recognizing the long-term negative impacts that are very real.

—Paul Fischbeck

The model and background information can be downloaded from:

This research was supported by the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making (SES-0949710), through a cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University.




Germany is currently producing 17% electric energy from nuclear PPs and not 25%.


Bad idea. This knee-jerk reaction to an extremely unlikely event, how many US reactors are build in earthquake prone areas and could be damaged by a tsunami? Maybe one or two and these should be evaluated. I am in favor of shutting down all coal fired plants asap. And by that I mean at a rate they can be replaced by LFTRs. See After that the existing LWR nuclear reactors should be replaced by LFTRs.


So much for that weird idea that the US should emulate the European culture.


I favor a ban on new nuclear power plants and expansions of existing plants. Let the existing plants operate until decommissioning. Open Yucca Mountain once and for all to take all the waste from all the closed plants across the country until all the nuke plants are gone & all the waste is at Yucca...then close Yucca forever.


When they are old and ready to be shut down, then do it. There was a story of one reactor that had so much corrosion that it was two months from a major event in the U.S. recently. These are the kinds of plants we want to have a look at.


The way I wrote it above isn't clear so I'll try again: I favor a ban on new nuclear power plants and I favor banning expansions of existing plants. Let's get rid of nuclear power plants entirely --- but let the existing ones run out their lives.


There could be an advantage to leaving the spent fuel rods at the plants. Beyond the dangers of transporting from the east of the U.S. clear across the country to Nevada, there is reprocessing for thorium one day near the site of the old plant and close to the new thorium plant.


So, an opportunity for a teaching moment:
If some natural disaster, like the earthquake/tsunami occurs/recurs,
1. We stand to lose 15 to 20,000 people from the natural disaster and
2. We stand to lose 0-100 people - near term deaths from radiation and maybe 0 - 1000 lives shortened maybe 10 times more than if they smoked heavily.

#1. The Japanese earthquake/tsunami was unprecedented in recorded history, if there was a recurrence only plants similarly situated would be at risk

#2. I see no reason to see how the radiation toll (0 - 1000) can compare with deaths due to various other conveniences, even if the convenience is for others than the ones killed (such as killed by a tour bus or beer truck).

Ergo, let’s shut down earthquake/tsunami combinations.

The safety of nuclear power?
– after Fukushima, apparently safer than we thought.

John L.

I knew that I would see at least a few hints of the following, specious reasoning in some peoples' posts:

Shutting down nuclear power plants in the US would have significant (negative) economic and environmental consequences; therefore, expanding nuclear power plants in the US would have significant positive economic and environmental consequences.

@ToppaTom: Japan may lose few lives over Fukushima, but it's starting to look like hundreds, to perhaps 1,500, square kilometers of land will be rendered economically unusable for decades to come. Tens of thousands of people will be permanently displaced. Just like Chernobyl. "Dead zones" are a very significant consequence of a nuclear accident.

@ejj: I agree with you. Don't rush to close existing nuclear plants, but neither should they be expanded. To that I would add, start expanding renewable energy RAPIDLY.


Renewable energy is coming – but slowly.

Comparisons to Chernobyl and statements like "Japan may lose some land" and "just go to renewable energy" are also specious.

Renewable energy has few downsides - other than practicality/cost - it's motherhood.
And the concept is old.

So why does it currently provide only six percent of all U.S. energy?

Like "just make cars out of C-composites and titanium", one has to assume it is too costly,
(well, of course, also hindered by various weird conspiracies).

And to state "it will cost less in the long run" should be preceded by "I hope" or "I wish".

Many (including the free market) still believe cost is relevant.

Nick Lyons

In general I agree with SJC (including a strong push to validate whether thorium reactors can really do what their proponents promise), with the following addition: take aggressive steps to promote energy conservation. We could maintain comparable lifestyles as today using much less energy overall.

I live in Juneau, Alaska. In April, 2008, an avalanche took out the transmission lines from our main (hydro) source of electricity. Repairs would take months. In the meantime, the local utility switched to backup diesel generators while telling its customers that rates would need to go up 500% in the interim. Result? Electricity usage dropped over 30% almost immediately. We shut stuff off. We dried clothes on clotheslines (inside and out). We grilled food outdoors when we could. People turned down the thermostat. Stores cut back on lighting levels. Many people changed to CFLs (our household had done previously). Mostly we were mindeful of our electricty usage. It was not much of a burden at all, and life went on. Note that consumption dropped over 30% immediately with no major investments.

The cheapest source of power available is conservation.


Conservation and efficiency ARE the easiest and most cost effective ways of dealing with energy in the short and medium terms.

I favor under ground transmission lines for electrical power. Whether wind, tornadoes, avalanches or wild fires. the under ground lines will still operate and not need repair.


I have NO desire to conserve energy. I want to use as much energy that I want to buy. However, I ultimately want it to be American renewable energy. I have no desire to conserve water with certain things I do either. Water-conserving dishwasher & washing machine? Fine. But I want a high-flow toilet and shower. I hate those little white showerhead flow restrictors and have taken them out and thrown them away everywhere I've lived.


An individual should have to pay to use more and at some point if they are wasting, they should be stopped. During drought, people over watering their lawns so that it runs down the gutter for hours are told about the problem and asked not to waste. If they continue to waste, they are fined.

This makes sense with a scarce shared resource, you are wasting other people's share and that is not allowed no matter HOW wealthy you are. Some would call this nannyism and a restriction of freedom, I call it common sense. NO one is wealthy enough to be wasteful and harm others.


They are starting to prep for mini nuke reactors in the us.. the tva plans to install its first by 2020... Each mini nuke can power 70000 homes... and they are rather small.

Stan Peterson

John L,

Your post reveal more than you know.

You do realize that your Nissan and Mitsubishi autos are built in cities that were nuclear bombed? The cities were NOT, repeat were Not, abandoned.

Your prognosis for Fuskishima is just about as accurate and far seeing.

I still expect more LWRs of GenIII+ designs to be built to bridge the time until the Fsuion plants are ready.

For those who keep proposing new Fission designs, you should recognize that no actual designs, versus proposals exist, and to create them will csot tens of billions, take as much time as will be required to design and build future Fusion power stations.

Actually more, since if a Fusion plant fails there is little dire consequences, no large scale radiation present, nor major failure proof designs to have to construct, in comparison to any Fission reactor.

So unless, soem greenie "scientists" of the ilk of the CAGR types, decide that Fusion is deemed impossible, in which case that hydrogen bomb going off in the sky is a mirage. But they are specialists is selling mirage concepts.

These "scientists" certainly do believe that the Sun does not seem to do anything to heat the Earth; and only man made CO2 controls the tmeperature of the World.



You posts reveal much more than we care to see...ever.


Stan is half right this time. Fukushima prefecture will not be abandoned. The bit of cesium which got out will be diluted and sequestered below levels of concern, and life will go on. Sane countries will expand nuclear power, not abandon it.

Where I think he's wrong is his prognosis for fusion. Fusion has been 20 years away since about 1955. I don't see any of the materials issues getting easier (14.7 MeV neutrons are inherently destructive), so fusion will have only niche applications for a long time.

John L.

"Stan is half right this time. Fukushima prefecture will not be abandoned."

In case anyone is still reading this thread...

I never said that Fukushima PREFECTURE will be abandoned, that's a huge piece of real estate. It's 14,000 km^2. I was suggesting that around ten percent of that, 1,500 km^2, may be abandoned.

Meanwhile, it has been nine months, and the news continues to be bad. The most recent reports I can find indicate that the Japanese government will spend $13 billion and a number of years to clean up some as-yet undetermined portion of the abandoned land.


Not sure, if we have to use this nuclear technology is about the same or much better without it. The minds of ANS are seized inside "steam reactors" a primitive use of nuclear energy based on a hot rod boiling water, something similar to steam engines from 1600 Industrial Revolution, but as one said, if the steam engineers were so proficient in eliminating all other technologies we might never enjoy the benefits of "direct fuel injection" on our cars, we might drive pushing coal in our mini-boilers (call them Small Modular Reactors). US have to think seriously to fund the advanced research in nuclear power not only advanced bombs...because in bombs will be no revolution, and US will not succeed to blackmail all the planet with its bombs, just political gargling...The US national programs are conceived with HYPOCRISY, for example the Road Map to Generation 4 - was designed NOT to stimulate the progress to generation 4, but to eliminate from funding any other idea that is not related to STEAM REACTORS, and so did the GNEP, and all other DOE programs - it just strengthened the gangs power (old boys club)in nuclear domain, and eliminated any real invention. Fukushima showed clearly the weakness of US design, and the human factor impact - call it american management embedded in a country with fanatic militaristic traditions...they suppressed the question: if water somehow will flood our basement what the nuclear reactor will do? to be answered, and what they got - a Fukushima like Chernobyl...

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