Many countries have phased out production of nuclear energy because of concerns related to nuclear waste and the risk of nuclear accidents. A new study explored the impact of the shutdown of roughly half of the nuclear power plants in Germany after the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan. The study found that the resulting reductions in nuclear power were replaced primarily by production from coal-fired sources and reductions in net electricity exports. The study was conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). It was published as an NBER working paper.
The study found that nuclear energy production due to the phase-out of the nuclear plants was replaced primarily by coal-fired production and by imports of electricity from surrounding countries. The move from nuclear power to fossil fuel-fired power resulted in substantial increases in emissions of global and local air pollution. In addition, electricity prices rose due to the phaseout of nuclear plants, so electricity producers benefited but German consumers had to pay more, the study found.
Closing nuclear plants had benefits: reducing the risk of nuclear accidents and decreasing the costs associated with storing nuclear waste. But even the largest estimates of the benefits of the nuclear phaseout were likely far smaller than $12 billion a year. Among the limitations of the study noted by the authors are that plant-level data on electricity production were unavailable prior to 2015, and economic factors that changed during the course of the study may have affected findings in ways independent of those studied.