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Respiratory Health Association and CATF Study Finds Hundreds of Lives Saved by Continued Operation of Four Nuclear Plants in Illinois

October 8, 2019 Work Area: Advanced Nuclear

CHICAGO, October 8, 2019 – With ongoing discussions of energy reform in Illinois as well as a ruling looming from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on the PJM capacity market, the viability of state-supported nuclear and other zero-emission energy resources could be significantly impacted.  As a result, Respiratory Health Association and Clean Air Task Force analyzed the health impacts from increased emissions at existing fossil fuel plants that would result if a portion of the state’s zero-emission nuclear plants were to prematurely retire.

Using proven U.S. EPA modeling tools, CATF found that significant near-term loss of nuclear power generation in Illinois would result in huge increases in deadly emissions from existing fossil fuel plants, driving increased premature death numbers and major public health damage and costs over the next ten years across the Midwest and Eastern US.  The study found that the loss of four of six Illinois nuclear plants would result in the following cumulative health-related impacts and costs over a ten-year period:

  • Up to 2,700 premature deaths, primarily from cardiopulmonary diseases;
  • Over 30,000 additional asthma attacks as well as other respiratory symptoms leading to limited daily activities;
  • Almost 140,000 lost work days;
  • Up to $24 billion ($2.4 billion per year) in monetized damages due to increased air pollution from neighboring fossil fuel power plants.

The six-month-long study was conducted by John Graham, CATF Senior Scientist (PhD, MIT), who specializes in documenting risks from air pollution, including fine particulate matter, ozone and air toxics. To develop his public health findings, Graham utilized emissions analysis that calculated regional power plant emissions with and without four nuclear plants prepared by the Brattle Group, a worldwide energy research and consulting organization.

The four nuclear plants in Illinois – Braidwood, Byron, Dresden and LaSalle — produce enough energy to power over 7 million homes and businesses without harmful air pollution or carbon emissions.

In contrast to the drastic negative health impacts a sudden federal ruling change could bring, the Clean Energy Jobs Act legislation now pending in Illinois General Assembly would have Illinois assume state management of the electricity capacity market which is now governed by PJM, in order to avoid the negative health and economic impacts from federal rule changes.

In commenting on the release of the report, Brian Urbaszewski, Director of Environmental Health at Respiratory Health Association said: “As the state of Illinois considers policies that affect the future of nuclear power plants, it’s important to understand the public health consequences of continued or increased reliance on coal-fired power plants for our energy needs. This study clearly demonstrates the very significant health consequences from prematurely losing zero-emissions nuclear generation before such plants can be responsibly replaced with clean and renewable power sources.”

The study is one of the first on comparative health impacts from nuclear facility closures vs. additional coal-fired electric power generation.  A previous study earlier this year by Drs. Christopher Tessum and Julian Marshall of the University of Washington showed similar public health results for nuclear plant retirements in Ohio and Pennsylvania.


For this study, CATF used US EPA’s Co-Benefits Risk Assessment Health Impacts Screening and Mapping Tool v3.1 (COBRA) to quantify the health impacts and their associated costs that would result from emissions changes in the power sector.  The COBRA emissions input file was modified to reflect future fossil fueled power plant-specific emissions for two scenarios: one where the four Illinois nuclear facilities continued operations from 2020-2029 and another where those facilities ceased operation.  The emissions change were averaged over the ten-year period and then modeled with COBRA.

“In an increasingly carbon-constrained world, we are recognizing more and more the importance of keeping our fleet of nuclear power plants operating,” said Graham.  “Not only are they more climate-friendly from a carbon-emissions standpoint, but they are also more protective of public health than existing fossil fuel power plants from an air pollution standpoint by avoiding the release of dangerous and deadly fine particulates, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into our atmosphere.”


Shortly after the completion of this study, closure dates were announced for five coal power plants in Illinois; to put the announcements in context, impacts are addressed in an addendum to the report. Due to air emission changes, the lives saved from the retirement of the five Vistra coal plants in Illinois would be more than offset by the lives lost from replacing the four at-risk nuclear plants. We estimate that the net lives saved from the retirement of the five Vistra coal plants will be 99 lives per year.  However, an increase in air emissions from replacing the generation from the four at-risk nuclear plants would lead to 270 premature deaths per year, nearly triple the number of lives saved due to the retiring the five coal plants.

“The closures of five Vistra coal plants, which we estimate would save nearly 100 lives per year, were a hard won public health victory. But, losing the four at-risk nuclear plants prematurely would result in much more air pollution than those dirty coal plants emitted and would more than offset the health benefits from retiring those coal plants,” said Brian Urbaszewski of the Respiratory Health Association.

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