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There’s a special word — such an important word — right in the final paragraph of the new NBER working paper “The Private and External Costs of Germany’s Nuclear Phase-Out” by Stephen Jarvis, Olivier Deschenes, and Akshaya Jha: “Trade-off.”
Yup, trade-offs exist. And their reality is something that policy activists tend to ignore, but policymakers must eventually confront. No such thing as a free lunch. No something for nothing. Here’s the nuclear power trade-off identified by those researchers:
Policymakers around the world thus face a difficult trade-off. On the one hand, many climate change experts have argued that nuclear power is a necessary part of the shift away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels. Moreover, many voters are willing to incur substantial costs to reduce the risk of climate change. However, many of these same voters are also unwilling to support nuclear power due to fears surrounding nuclear accidents and nuclear waste disposal.
And that uncomfortable political trade-off is related to the trade-offs incurred when shifting a nation’s energy portfolio away from nuclear. From the paper, again:
Following the Fukashima disaster in 2011, German authorities made the unprecedented decision to: (1) immediately shut down almost half of the country’s nuclear power plants and (2) shut down all of the remaining nuclear power plants by 2022. We quantify the full extent of the economic and environmental costs of this decision. Our analysis indicates that the phase-out of nuclear power comes with an annual cost to Germany of roughly $12 billion per year. Over 70% of this cost is due to the 1,100 excess deaths per year resulting from the local air pollution emitted by the coal-fired power plants operating in place of the shutdown nuclear plants. Our estimated costs of the nuclear phase-out far exceed the right-tail estimates of the benefits from the phase-out due to reductions in nuclear accident risk and waste disposal costs. Moreover, we find that the phase-out resulted in substantial increases in the electricity prices paid by consumers.
A different paper found a similar trade-off in Japan itself after the Fukushima accident:
This paper provides a large scale, empirical evaluation of unintended effects from invoking the precautionary principle after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. After the accident, all nuclear power stations ceased operation and nuclear power was replaced by fossil fuels, causing an exogenous increase in electricity prices. This increase led to a reduction in energy consumption, which caused an increase in mortality during very cold temperatures. We estimate that the increase in mortality from higher electricity prices outnumbers the mortality from the accident itself, suggesting the decision to cease nuclear production has contributed to more deaths than the accident itself.
At least in the case of Germany, the authors speculate that the public may be anti-nuclear because the risks from air pollution are less obvious and the costs of climate change will be born by future generations. As such, the paper concludes, “it is essential for policymakers and academics to convey the relative costs of climate change and air pollution versus nuclear accident risk and waste disposal to the voting public.”