This week, JLF’s Jon Sanders published a research brief on the importance of nuclear energy in our power grid and how continuing nuclear power generation potentially saves lives. Sanders explains that Duke Energy will be seeking license renewals for its North Carolina nuclear energy plants in upcoming years and that the state should prioritize keeping these plants open. Sanders writes:

[N]uclear is not just a zero-emissions energy source. It’s also incredibly efficient and can produce electricity on demand (it’s reliable). These aspects put nuclear in a class apart from renewable energy sources that may be zero-emissions but also are frequently zero-energy, depending on the time of day, the weather, and what the winds may be doing at the moment. Solar and wind plants require costly, emissions-producing backup generation, which is why Brookings research has found nuclear to be “the most cost-effective zero-emission technology.”

Not only does nuclear reduce emissions and provide reliable energy, but new research also shows that a reduction in this cost-effective energy source could have the potential to cost lives. Sanders explains:

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper shows that higher heating bills cost lives. As stated in the abstract, economists Janjala Chirakijja, Seema Jayachandran, and Pinchuan Ong find that:

Exposure to cold is one reason that mortality peaks in winter, and a higher heating price increases exposure to cold by reducing heating use. It also raises energy bills, which could affect health by decreasing other health-promoting spending. Our empirical approach combines spatial variation in the energy source used for home heating and temporal variation in the national prices of natural gas versus electricity. We find that a lower heating price reduces winter mortality, driven mostly by cardiovascular and respiratory causes.

Basically, higher energy prices cost lives, and lower energy prices save lives. That’s a stark finding.

This is not the only study to produce such a finding. Sanders cites another working paper by economists Matthew J. Neidell, Shinsuke Uchida, and Marcella Veronesi following 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.”

Sanders writes:

In other words, higher electricity prices from shutting down all nuclear power caused more deaths than the nuclear accident that prompted the decision.

Nuclear provided almost the same proportion of energy to Japan (30 percent) as it does to North Carolina, but Japan shut down all 54 of its reactors, even though only 15 were at risk from tsunamis. Now Japan is the second-largest net importer of fossil fuels in the world, and electricity prices increased by as much as 38 percent.

While these findings may seem dramatic to some, this dilemma harkens back to a very real situation in North Carolina when oppressively high energy costs in the eastern part of the state forced some residents into the decision “Do I stay warm or eat?”

Read the full research brief here. Learn more about nuclear energy here.