We all know of the bad stuff that flows into the air from fossil-fuel power plants. They emit CO2, which contributes to climate change; NOx and SOx, which contribute to acid rain; and particulates that adversely affect human health. Particulates are nasty — they contribute to early death in infants and the elderly, and impact individuals with decreased lung capacity, such as those with asthma.
I have firsthand experience. The memory of my young son’s reaction to my being incubated during an asthma attack is permanently seared in my memory. There are real-world, life and death and quality-of-life effects from putting more pollution in the air.
And the ill effects of air pollution, particularly particulates, are not shared equally by all in society. They fall hardest on those who live near power plants. I have never seen a coal or gas plant nestled in among suburban homes with rolling lawns and three-car garages. I have, however, seen them jammed between row houses in neighborhoods filled with poor families, many of them people of color.
Power plants fueled by coal or natural gas are prime examples — though far from the only examples — of environmental injustice: placing environmental hazards in neighborhoods of the un-empowered.
This is why I believe that New Jersey’s nuclear power plants should be preserved. In places where nuclear plants have closed, coal plants have been restarted or natural gas plants have run more, and even expanded. Air emissions rose considerably. It makes no sense to close New Jersey’s largest sources of clean electric generation and replace them with fossil fuels. It would be a huge step backward — and the burden would fall on those who can least afford it.
The amount of emissions is not insignificant. Replacing nuclear plants in New Jersey with fossil fuel-burning plants would have the same impact of adding 3 million more cars (gas combustion, not electric) to New Jersey’s roads.
A report by the Brattle Group estimates that closing the nuclear plants would result in 17,315 tons of additional particulates being released in the air and cost the state more than $100 million a year — mainly in increased medical costs and decreased productivity — again, falling mostly on those who can least afford it. This is on top of the nearly 14 million tons of CO2 that would be released into the atmosphere. The Brattle group found that the public health and environmental costs of closing the nuclear plants would exceed $700 million a year in New Jersey — a cost that will not be equally distributed.
Nuclear power is clean and, in New Jersey, situated in less-populated areas. They are safe neighbors; someone living near a coal pile is exposed to more radiation than someone living near a nuclear power plant.
Energy prices will climb
I need to add one more factor that often goes overlooked. If New Jersey’s nuclear plants close, the cost of energy will go up. Nuclear plants currently supply half of New Jersey’s electric generation. If those plants close, they will be replaced by more costly units — it is the way of free markets. In fact, the cost of electricity will go up much more than it would cost if we were to preserve these plants. This burden, too, falls disproportionately on those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. While their electric bills may be smaller than those who live in McMansions with in-ground pools, the percent of their income that goes to utilities is much higher. They simply cannot afford that burden, especially when it can be avoided.
The benefits of nuclear power are well-known — nuclear energy is good for the environment, ensures fuel diversity, and creates good-paying jobs. The cost of closing nuclear plants would be significant and spread across society.
Many will focus on the burden this will place on the workers at the plants and the communities that surround them. We need to factor in, as well, the impact on those who live near coal and gas plants that will be more active if nuclear plants close. We need to be finding ways to lessen the economic injustice of plants in the urban cities, not make it worse.
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