Atmospheric Sciences Research Spotlight

The High Cost of Switching Power Sources

Researchers construct a world where nuclear energy everywhere is replaced with coal, with stark consequences for human health and the environment.

Source: Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres


As global temperatures continue to rise, many countries have turned to nuclear power as an alternative to carbon dioxide–emitting fuel sources like coal. However, many leaders and policy makers question whether the benefits of nuclear power offset the risk of radioactive contamination. Some nations—like Germany—have abandoned nuclear power as an alternative energy source. Here Mielonen et al. simulated a scenario in which the rest of the world followed suit and reverted to coal power.

The team used a global three-dimensional climate model to simulate what would happen if every nuclear power plant on Earth were swapped for a coal plant. They assessed the impacts of carbon dioxide emissions and particulate matter on the environment, as well as the human health effects of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

The results of the team’s all-coal scenario paint a grim picture. Their models reveal that increased aerosol emissions from coal power plants would actually cool the climate at first because atmospheric aerosols reflect sunlight back into space. However, after 37 years, enough carbon dioxide would accumulate in the atmosphere to reverse this cooling effect and even accelerate global warming. They estimated that long-term exposure to these same aerosols would contribute to a worldwide increase in cardiopulmonary diseases and lung cancer, causing 150,000 premature deaths each year. Two thirds of these deaths would occur in Europe.

The researchers recognize that the study does not provide a complete assessment of the factors involved in choosing an energy source. They did not include an analysis of the risks inherent in nuclear energy, like accidents from nuclear waste or the potential for developing nuclear weapons. The team also acknowledges that the likelihood of their worst-case scenario turning into reality is slim—but the study still serves a practical purpose by emphasizing the detrimental consequences of fossil fuel reliance.

The study isn’t merely a question of nuclear versus coal, however; rather, the authors caution that nations abandoning nuclear power should carefully consider the health and climate effects of energy sources that might take its place. For example, coal has clearly adverse health effects, and biomass burning may not be a good option either. Ultimately, further research is necessary to determine which fuel source will have the smallest unfavorable impact on health and/or climate. (Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, doi:10.1002/2015JD024183, 2015)

—Shannon Kelleher, Writer Intern

Citation: Kelleher, S. (2016), The high cost of switching power sources, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO047361. Published on 7 March 2016.

© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
  • arbough

    I generally like the article, except for the lead sentence. “As global temperatures continue to rise, many countries have turned to nuclear power as an alternative to carbon dioxide-emitting fuel sources..”. Really? Name one. I agree that countries should be looking to nuclear to slow down global warming, but am not aware of any country that has actually done anything in this regard, much less “many”.

  • Ray

    Nuclear fission energy is not cost effective and comes with unacceptable risks for the present generation and future generations. This paper reinforces that switching to coal is obviously not the answer from a climate or air quality perspective, which actually should already have been obvious. However, the choice between nuclear and coal is not one that society needs to make since renewables are a better answer. In 2016, renewables are starting to achieve grid parity with fossil fuels and are already way cheaper than nuclear if you consider all the subsidies and cost overruns involved, and renewables like solar and wind will continue to drop in price. We still can’t go 100% renewable – for now – due to the intermittency of these power sources, but that can be addressed with storage technology that is just around the corner. High tech storage solutions like Elon Musk’s “Powerwall” are part of the solution as well as low tech but larger scale water storage. Renewable energy is the future and their use is growing and accelerating, regardless of whether proponents of nuclear or coal understand or accept this.

    • arbough

      Not sure what these “unacceptable” risks are. They are not unacceptable to me or to my colleagues in the radioactive waste disposal field. “storage technology that is just around the corner”–yeah right. Musk’s Powerwall is never going to provide industrial-scale power. We need continuous, major base power generation, and nuclear is clearly the way to go for that.

  • Achal H P

    Per given amount of mass, nuclear fuel (say uranium) gives a million times more energy than coal. Train load of coal is required *every day*, compared to a couple of truckloads of uranium *every year*.

    Coal produces global warming gases, causes acid rain and the particulates cause respiratory disorders. It produces large quantities of fly ash, which is difficult to handle.

    Any Nuclear technology is superior to even the latest generation coal technology.

  • AndyG55

    Particulate matter is well controlled in modern coal fired power stations.
    And the world’s atmosphere needs more CO2 , not less

    • Suresh Kumar Aggarwal

      I am not sure that the world’s atmosphere needs more CO2 and not less. Any reference to this. If this is so, then why to worry about stopping use of fossil fuels. Why not find out an economic way to convert CO2 into ethanol or other energy producing compounds. Till then, we cannot and we should not abandon nuclear energy, as has been done by German Govt. (Wait and see the action and reaction in a few years). When you have excess of anything, you can always stop buying or producing the same. But what about those nations like India and China who have major part of world’s population and need more electricity. Nuclear has to be used by these nations, taking all the care so as not to create problems for future generations. Fusion energy research needs to be expedited by different international researchers.

  • Suresh Kumar Aggarwal

    I completely agree with the analysis report. Politicians need to think along with environmentalists and nuclear scientists . It is not prudent to shut down all the nuclear plants unless other renewable energy sources like solar, wind etc. are tapped properly. We have to keep on using nuclear in addition to other energy sources. Unfortunate incidents/accidents happen in every industry. There are earthquakes not predicted by anyone. Do we stop living on the earth? Hence a clear policy with good understanding is needed by all the politicians world-wide.
    Dr S.K.Aggarwal, Mumbai, India
    [email protected]

    • Asteroid Miner

      Nuclear power is the only way to stop making CO2 that actually works. To stop Global Warming, we must replace all large fossil fueled power plants with nuclear.

      Renewable Energy mandates cause more CO2 to be produced, not less, and renewable energy doubles or quadruples your electric bill. The reasons are as follows:

      Since solar “works” 15% of the time and wind “works” 20% of the time, we need either energy storage technology we don’t have or ambient temperature superconductors and we don’t have them either. Wind and solar are so intermittent that electric companies are forced to build new generator capacity that can load-follow very fast, and that means natural gas fired gas turbines. The gas turbines have to be kept spinning at full speed all the time to ramp up quickly enough. The result is that wind and solar not only double your electric bill, wind and solar also cause MORE CO2 to be produced.

      We do not have battery or energy storage technology that could smooth out wind and solar at a price that would be possible to do. The energy storage would “cost” in the neighborhood of a QUADRILLION dollars for the US. That is an imaginary price because we could not get the materials to do it if we had that much money.

      The only real way to reduce CO2 production from electricity generation is to replace all fossil fueled power plants with the newest available generation of nuclear. Nuclear can load-follow fast enough as long as wind and solar power are not connected to the grid. Generation 4 nuclear can ramp fast enough to make up for the intermittency of wind and solar, but there is no reason to waste time and money on wind and solar.