Our lives have been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic even as we all reckon with the impacts of climate change. It has never been clearer: Science matters if we are to fulfill our responsibility to preserve the things we hold most dear, our families, our communities and our way of life. But science alone cannot achieve these goals if we do not continue to talk about the concepts of social justice and equity. They are as much a part of building a brighter future together as vaccines or clean energy.
NJ Spotlight recently reported a higher impact of the COVID-19 disease is associated with existing health factors and social factors, with African Americans and Latinos more than twice as likely as whites to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19. This dreadful pandemic has reminded us again that disparities not only continue to exist in our society, but also that their existence poses a threat to all of us.
So what does nuclear energy have to do with equity or supporting our citizens’ health?
We all need clean air to breathe. Environmental impacts – particularly those associated with poor air quality, like ozone and particulates – are greatest in urban areas with larger populations of low-income residents.
In its October 2020 application to extend New Jersey’s Zero Emissions Certificates (ZECs), PSEG noted that the American Lung Association has found that poorer people and ethnic minorities often face higher exposure to air pollution. Exposure to high levels of ozone and fine particulates can worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma, leading to an increased need for medical care. Blacks, Hispanics and urban residents are more likely to be affected with asthma symptoms, as are individuals with a family history of the disease. Further, a recent study performed by scientists at Harvard University shows a linkage between higher fine particulate levels and increased mortality rates due to COVID-19.
In New Jersey, nuclear provides more than 90% of the clean energy generated in the state. And if our nuclear plants were to shut down for any reason, more than 90% of the electricity we use would come from power plants burning fossil fuels. This would cause an increase in emissions of harmful byproducts in the form of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, including carbon dioxide, ozone and fine particulates. These concerns are not theoretical. When New Jersey’s smallest nuclear plant, Oyster Creek, shut down permanently in October 2018, the electricity it generated was replaced with coal and natural gas, resulting in an additional 3.1 million tons of carbon released into the air in just one year. Retiring more nuclear plants would just make an already bad situation worse.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data show that New Jersey has been one of the fastest-warming states in the US, with average temperature increases approximately double the average for the Lower 48 states over the last 125 years. And, studies have already shown significant impacts of climate change in the State as well as underscore the risks to New Jersey’s coastal property if sea levels rise. Further, the United Nations has made it crystal clear that the effects of climate change fall the hardest on the most disadvantaged groups and that it can increase poverty and worsen inequality. Are we going to heed this warning and what it portends for our state?
The best public policies for our state will combine an understanding of science and climate change with considerations of equity and social justice and, of course, affordability.
If you believe that climate change is not only a global challenge, but also one that hits New Jersey particularly hard, then the battle to preserve New Jersey’s nuclear plants is one we can’t afford to lose. At PSEG, we’re committed to supporting our state and doing what is in the best interests of our customers and communities.
From the air we breathe to how we treat each other, we’re all connected. This makes our approach to tackling climate change and preserving clean air relevant and meaningful for everyone.
Rick Thigpen is PSEG’s senior vice president for Corporate Citizenship and chairman of the PSEG Foundation.