Maureen Koetz: Cleaner air legacy of Donora Smog

November 9, 2018 GMT

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the “Donora Smog,” a 1948 air inversion that trapped toxic gases around the industrial town of Donora, 24 miles down the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh. The event killed 20 people, including the father of baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial, and sickened thousands of the town’s 14,000 inhabitants.

The death in Donora was one of multiple and increasing fatal 20th-century air-pollution events that began with Belgium’s “Meuse Valley Fog” in 1930 that killed 60.

St. Louis had a “Black Tuesday” in 1939, and the smog that has long plagued Los Angeles first arrived as a “Hellish Fog” in 1943. Following Donora, London’s “Killer Fog” took 12,000 lives in 1952, while successive inversions in New York City took between 220 and 240 lives in 1953, 300-400 in 1963 and 169 in 1966. Chronic and too often deadly pollution was a permanent fixture in the urban airscape by the 1960s.


In the Donora aftermath, states like Pennsylvania got serious, creating a Division of Air Pollution Control in 1949. The first federal Air Pollution Control Act followed in 1955. Great Britain passed its seminal air quality law in 1956, and in 1963, the United States followed with the Clean Air Act of 1963 -- although enforceable emissions limits were not authorized until watershed 1970 amendments.

The quest for clean air was well underway when, in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower first proposed using nuclear materials and fuels “to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind.” In advocating “Atoms for Peace,” he specifically identified “abundant energy in the power-starved areas of the world” as the program’s special purpose. A 1962 Atomic Energy Commission report included “smoke control” as a reason for nuclear power (after goals such as world leadership, desalinization and national defense), but the emission control value of nuclear remained largely viewed as merely an accident of mineralogy for which no compensation was justified -- just dumb periodic table luck.

Yet, within four years of Eisenhower’s peaceful atomic age launch and a mere nine after the deaths at Donora, the policy and economic arcs of Atoms for Peace and clean air converged.

When Pittsburgh needed new sources of electricity in the late 1950s, but smoke still choked the people of western Pennsylvania, a local utility signed up to invest in the first commercial nuclear plant. Interviewed for a 1981 article by historian Richard Rhodes, then Duquesne Light Co. Chairman Philip A. Flegler recalled the rationale for his company’s $5 million stake in the original Shippingport reactor in 1957. “The basic reason Duquesne went nuclear,” Flegler clarified, “was pollution control.”


Since then, nuclear electricity has been a global mainstay of emission avoidance and prevention -- first smoke, then sulfur, nitrogen oxides, small particulates and now carbon -- annually returning tens of billions of dollars in credits and longer and healthier lives, back to the ratepayers and shareholders underwriting the plants, as well as regional beneficiaries of Flegler’s pollution control.

In 2013, a NASA Goddard Center report co-authored by then lead scientist Dr. James Hansen determined that displacing fossil electricity with the global nuclear fleet saved 1.8 million people who otherwise would have suffered from pollution-related deaths. Current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency economic analyses of pollution control technology costs and benefits value each statistical life saved at $10 million. The Goddard conclusions arguably confirm $18 trillion (yes trillion) in nuclear life-saving left off the ledgers.

Yet the dangerous canard of “uneconomic” nuclear plants persists largely because this human and natural capital value was never officially calculated or booked. For decades, EPA models and analyses have applied value to emission reductions from fossil plants, but ignored emission prevention from nuclear. Now that same faulty bookkeeping is on the verge of costing the ratepayers of Western Pennsylvania the enduring value of the state’s nine nuclear power plants.

No nuclear closure should be implemented before full economic value calculations regarding clean air and health security are run for Beaver Valley, Three Mile Island and other vital area nuclear plants. Such data supports issuance of emission credits in any category, whether conventional pollutant or greenhouse gases, and finally documents the valid return that nuclear plants have earned since first deployed for western Pennsylvania pollution control those many decades ago.

Seventy years after the death at Donora, the legacy of 20 lives lost deserves no less.