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Coal-Fueled Power Plants Linked to Lower Birth Weights in Tennessee Valley

When nuclear power plants pressed pause, coal stepped in—and birth weights began to decline

Birth weights declined near the Paradise Fossil Plant in Kentucky during the 1980s. (Tennessee Valley Authority)
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How should the U.S. produce its energy? If the heat generated by the debate could somehow be captured, it would power entire planets for generations. And a new study about the health effects of one community’s switch from nuclear to coal power is sure to further fuel the argument. It shows that children born in a region that shifted to coal-fired power stations after the closure of nuclear plants had lower birth weights post switch, reports Nicola Davis for The Guardian.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Energy, a researcher looked at the historical impact of the Tennessee Valley’s switch from nuclear to coal power. The region—which crosses the borders of Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, and North Carolina—is home to the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. In a bid to modernize the economically impoverished reason, the New Deal corporation installed dams and created power plants, and by the 1960s it was installing the latest innovation in electricity generation: nuclear power plants.

But things went awry in 1979, when an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania—the most serious nuclear power plant incident in the U.S. to date. The partial meltdown terrified the public and the federal government began cracking down on violations at other plants. As the study’s author, Edson Severini, writes, nuclear plants in the Tennessee Valley were temporarily closed down. In their stead, existing coal-fired plants in the region increased production.

Severini studied air pollution and birth weights before and during the shutdown. Before the shutdown, air pollution in the area had been declining. But while the nuclear plants were closed, concentrations of total suspended particulate—particle pollution—increased. Though the impacts varied around different power plants, all saw higher rates of air pollution.

Average birth weights fell, too. In areas around coal-fired power plants, babies’ weights declined by 5.4 percent during the 18 months of increased coal-fired power production. And in areas around plants that increased production the most—like the coal-burning Paradise Fossil Plant in Western Kentucky—birth weights declined the most. The lower birth weights were only found in babies who were born more than three months after the shutdown—which could shed more light on how air pollution affects babies in utero.

Low birth weights are associated with everything from shorter lives to a lower lifelong socioeconomic status and success in adulthood. Air pollution has been linked with other health problems, too, but multiple studies show a connection between breathing in fine particles and having children who weigh less. However, it’s still not clear how air pollution might cause reduced birth weight. It’s thought that it may affect multiple systems in the body, disrupting the endocrine system, reducing oxygen flow across the placenta and causing inflammation.

Will the new study lead to a policy change in the Tennessee Valley, which still partially relies on the coal-fueled power plants? Change is already in the air, reports Adam Beam for the Associated Press. Nuclear power plants like Browns Ferry and Sequoyah restarted in the 1980s and 1990s, but in some regions like Kentucky a moratorium remains. Beam writes that the Kentucky state legislature recently voted to lift the moratorium in favor of nuclear power—but that a long fight remains. Perhaps the information linking coal-fueled power generation with serious health effects for kids will tip the scales toward nuclear, but don’t expect the debate to cool down any time soon.

Editor's Note April 7, 2017: This article has been corrected to show that the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant is in Pennsylvania. 

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