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Study: Surge in coal pollution led to smaller newborns

In March 1979, a series of mechanical and human errors at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, resulted in the release of radioactive gasses, an accident that profoundly affected the energy industry.

The accident heightened public fears over the use of nuclear energy, resulting in several nuclear power plants being shut down in the region, as well as a moratorium on any new nuclear plants being put in place temporarily. By the mid-1980s, virtually all construction of nuclear plants had stopped.

Viewed from the east  Three Mile Island currently uses only one nuclear generating station  TMI-1  w...

Viewed from the east, Three Mile Island currently uses only one nuclear generating station, TMI-1, which is on the right. TMI-2, to the left, has not been used since the accident.

Return to coal-fired power plants
In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident, a number of nuclear power plants governed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), including two in Tennessee, were temporarily shut down. The plants were replaced with local coal-fired power plants, reports CTV News Canada.

Edson Severnini is an assistant professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In his new study, published in the journal Nature Energy on Monday, Severnini says those closures may have caused reduced birth weight in newborns in the area at the time, due to pollution exposure from the increased reliance on coal-burning power plants.

Severnini looked at the closures of the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama in 1985 as well as the Sequoyah plant in Tennessee, which was closed from 1985 to 1988, reports ArsTechnica. Birth weight is a strong indicator of the health of a baby. Low birth weights of just over 5.0 percent can be an indication of future health issues, including lower IQ, stunted growth, and neurodevelopment problems, based on earlier studies.

Smokestacks at the Cumberland Power Plant  a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Cumberland Ci...

Smokestacks at the Cumberland Power Plant, a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Cumberland City, Tennessee, United States.
Steven Greenwood

The sudden cessation of nuclear power, which does not emit greenhouse gasses, and the increased reliance on coal-fired power led to a large spike in particle pollution in those areas adjacent to the coal-fired power plants, as measured by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in total suspended particulates (TSP).

Severnini found that after the energy switch, birth weights declined by 5.4 percent in counties having the highest percent of coal particle pollution. “Average birth weight declined approximately 134 grams (4.7 ounces) after the nuclear shutdown,” he said, according to

Nuclear power versus coal-fired power
While there are fears over the use of nuclear power, proponents say nuclear power generation is much safer and cleaner than coal-fired power generation with its particle pollution causing respiratory illnesses, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. They cite the over 200,000 premature deaths annually in China and India as proof of coal’s harmful effects.

Pouring money into new coal-fired power plants  a sector US President-elect Donald Trump has vowed t...

Pouring money into new coal-fired power plants, a sector US President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to revitalise, no long makes economic sense according to experts

In contrast, supporters of coal point to the clean technologies in place today and the use of “clean” coal as promoting a cleaner environment and less of an impact on health. President Trump is set on reviving the coal industry and the use of coal-fired power plants, including in the area studied by Severnini.

Severnini said the findings of his research call for “reflection on the perceived benefits of shuttering nuclear plants.” He suggests, “The shutdown of nuclear power plants in the United States and abroad might not generate as much net benefit as the public perceives.”

The percentage of global electricity generated by nuclear power has dropped from nearly 18 percent in 1996 to about 11 percent today.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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