Working Paper

Retirements and Funerals: The Emission, Mortality, and Coal-Mine Employment Effects of a Two-Year Delay in Coal and Nuclear Power Plant Retirements

Jul 5, 2018 | Daniel Shawhan, Paul Picciano


A leaked US government memo proposes preventing the scheduled retirement of coal and nuclear power plants for two years. Using a detailed simulation model, we estimate the effects of such a policy on emissions, mortality, and coal-mine jobs.

Key Findings

  • We estimate the effects of a proposed US policy to delay retirement of coal and saveable nuclear power plants that have announced they will close by the end of 2020.
  • The policy would cause 353 to 815 premature deaths in 2019-2020 from additional emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
  • The policy would support 790 coal-mine jobs (1580 job-years), though it would be likely to reduce economy-wide employment.
  • These results indicate that each year the policy would cause 1 death for each 2 to 4.5 coal-mine jobs that it supports.
  • Over the two years, the policy would increase CO2 emissions by 22 million tons, equivalent to the amount emitted by 4.3 million cars in a year.
  • Applying the policy to nuclear generators only would prevent 24 to 53 premature deaths and 9 million tons of CO2 over the two years.


We employ a detailed electric sector simulation model and an air pollution dispersion model to estimate several effects of a policy that prevents the retirement of coal-fired and nuclear generators in the US for the next two years, as proposed in a draft US government memo leaked on May 31, 2018. Specifically, we estimate the effects on generation, emissions, mortality from those emissions, coal mine employment, and more, assuming that the policy is in effect in 2019 and 2020. We project that, by delaying the retirement of an average of 7,800 MW (3%) of US coal-fired capacity and 1,100 MW (1%) of US nuclear capacity, the policy would cause an estimated 353 to 815 additional premature deaths in the United States from power plant sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, and would increase carbon dioxide emissions by 22 million short tons, over the two-year period. This amount of carbon dioxide is the amount emitted by 4.3 million average US cars each year. The total estimated welfare loss from these deaths and carbon dioxide emissions is between $4 billion and $9 billion, with deaths from SO2 emissions constituting the majority. Additionally, the policy would support 1,580 coal mine job-years, though it might reduce economy-wide employment due to its effects in other sectors. These results indicate that each year, one American would die from air pollution for every two to 4.5 coal mining jobs supported by the policy. Applying the policy to the nuclear generators only would prevent an estimated 24 to 53 premature deaths, and an estimated 9 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.