The Australian Senate inquiry’s report into the planned closure of coal-fired power stations will no doubt shed light on the compelling health reasons to close them. Coal-fired stations are a health hazard to their local communities and beyond due to the pollutants they emit. The resulting illnesses are a significant cost to health budgets. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuels brings its own health burdens.
A 2009 Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering report put the health costs of coal-fired power stations at A$13 per MWh of electricity generated from coal (about A$2.6 billion a year). Climate change and other environmental costs were not included.
Pollutants and health
The three main pollutants from coal-fired power stations are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and invisible particulate matter (known as PM10 or PM2.5). Collectively, they act as irritants and cause inflammation in the lungs leading to asthma, chronic lung disease, and restricted lung growth in children.The small particles (PM2.5 and smaller) are associated with lung cancer and are also absorbed through the lungs into the blood stream to cause angina, heart attacks and strokes.
Research estimates that 24 people die for every terawatt hours (TWh) of coal burnt. Children are at particular risk from air pollution because they breathe more for their body weight than adults. In the Hunter Region of New South Wales there are many open cut coal mines and four active coal-fired power stations.
Phased closures for health
For the reasons above, the phased closure of power stations is urgent, and should occur over the next decade. Ideally, the order of closure is based on intensity of both carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution, and the rate at which renewable energy is encouraged to replace the plants.
Governments have not provided any plans for new jobs and industries, for example in renewable energy, to facilitate closures. So, non-government organisations have stepped in.
That has included informing local communities of health risks, existing pollution-related illness, and poor air quality, as well as a plan for transition of their employment into concentrated solar thermal renewable energy.