Coal Ash Is More Radioactive Than Nuclear Waste
By burning away all the pesky carbon and other impurities, coal power plants produce heaps of radiation
By Mara Hvistendahl on December 13, 2007
The popular conception of nuclear power is straight out of The Simpsons: Springfield abounds with signs of radioactivity, from the strange glow surrounding Mr. Burn’s nuclear power plant workers to Homer’s low sperm count. Then there’s the local superhero, Radioactive Man, who fires beams of “nuclear heat” from his eyes. Nuclear power, many people think, is inseparable from a volatile, invariably lime-green, mutant-making radioactivity.
Coal, meanwhile, is believed responsible for a host of more quotidian problems, such as mining accidents, acid rain and greenhouse gas emissions. But it isn’t supposed to spawn three-eyed fish like Blinky.
Over the past few decades, however, a series of studies has called these stereotypes into question. Among the surprising conclusions: the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. * [See Editor’s Note at end of page 2]
At issue is coal’s content of uranium and thorium, both radioactive elements. They occur in such trace amounts in natural, or “whole,” coal that they aren’t a problem. But when coal is burned into fly ash, uranium and thorium are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels.
Fly ash uranium sometimes leaches into the soil and water surrounding a coal plant, affecting cropland and, in turn, food. People living within a “stack shadow”—the area within a half- to one-mile (0.8- to 1.6-kilometer) radius of a coal plant’s smokestacks—might then ingest small amounts of radiation. Fly ash is also disposed of in landfills and abandoned mines and quarries, posing a potential risk to people living around those areas.
Nuclear Danger Still Dwarfed by Coal
By Christopher Wanjek, LiveScience, 4/26/11
One must accept a risk of radiation exposure when flying in and out of Narita International Airport, the busiest airport in Japan, just east of Tokyo, but perhaps not for the reason you are thinking.
Fukushima Daiichi, the tsunami-damaged nuclear reactor site about 150 miles (241 kilometers) to the north, as the foolish crow flies, continues to leak trace amounts of radiation. Radioactive iodine-131 made it into the water supply here last month. But most, as physics would have it, has since decayed into stable xenon.
So, few in this Tokyo region have been exposed to radiation levels as high as someone just hopping off a plane. The international flyer receives a dose of about 0.10 millisievert, or the amount of ionizing radiation in two dental X-rays, from the sun’s radioactive cosmic rays. That means that folks who left Tokyo because of the threat at Fukushima likely received more radiation on the airplane flight than they would have if they had stayed at home. [Mysterious Radiation May Strike Airline Passengers]
Such is the irony of nuclear energy, so potentially dangerous yet so much remarkably safer than most other energy sources, namely coal and other fossil fuels.
Dirty, dirty coal
As bad as Japan’s nuclear emergency could have gotten, it would never be as bad as burning coal. Coal is fantastically dangerous, responsible for far more than 1 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization.
Start with the coal miners, thousands of whom die from mine collapses and thousands more from various lung diseases. Next, add the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the public from breathing coal’s gaseous and particulate pollution, mostly from respiratory and heart disease.
Next, add the untold deaths and disabilities resulting from mercury in coal entering into the food chain. Then add the millions of acres of land, river and lake destroyed by mining waste.
Some of China’s citizens worried about a radioactive wind blowing over from Japan, but coal-burning power plants from China are causing far more health problems for both China and Japan.
Coal even releases more radioactive material than nuclear energy — 100 times more per the same amount of energy produced, according to Dana Christensen of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), as reported in Scientific American in 2007.
According to WHO statistics, there are at least 4,025 deaths from coal for every single death from nuclear power. Switch to “clean” natural gas? That’s still 100 times deadlier than nuclear energy. Oil is 900 times deadlier.
Not many are expected to die from the Fukushima Daiichi accident.
The U.S. DOE predicts a yearly dose of about 2,000 millirems for some people living northwest of the nuclear facility within 19 miles (31 kilometers), which could slightly increase their cancer risk if they haven’t left the area. But Japanese health authorities were quick to warn the public not to eat certain local foods with harmful levels of radioactivity, namely milk and spinach; people living within 12 miles (19 km) of the nuclear facility have been evacuated as a precaution; more are expected to be evacuated; and radiation levels continue to fall daily.
Coal and Gas are Far More Harmful than Nuclear Power
By Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen — April 2013
NASA Science Briefs, Goddard Institute for Space Studies
In a recently published paper (ref. 1), we provide an objective, long-term, quantitative analysis of the effects of nuclear power on human health (mortality) and the environment (climate). Several previous scientific papers have quantified global-scale greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions avoided by nuclear power, but to our knowledge, ours is the first to quantify avoided human deaths as well as avoided GHG emissions on global, regional, and national scales.
The paper demonstrates that without nuclear power, it will be even harder to mitigate human-caused climate change and air pollution. This is fundamentally because historical energy production data reveal that if nuclear power never existed, the energy it supplied almost certainly would have been supplied by fossil fuels instead (overwhelmingly coal), which cause much higher air pollution-related mortality and GHG emissions per unit energy produced (ref. 2).
Using historical electricity production data and mortality and emission factors from the peer-reviewed scientific literature, we found that despite the three major nuclear accidents the world has experienced, nuclear power prevented an average of over 1.8 million net deaths worldwide between 1971-2009 (see Fig. 1). This amounts to at least hundreds and more likely thousands of times more deaths than it caused. An average of 76,000 deaths per year were avoided annually between 2000-2009 (see Fig. 2), with a range of 19,000-300,000 per year.
Likewise, we calculated that nuclear power prevented an average of 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) net GHG emissions globally between 1971-2009 (see Fig. 3). This is about 15 times more emissions than it caused. It is equivalent to the past 35 years of CO2 emissions from coal burning in the U.S. or 17 years in China (ref. 3) — i.e., historical nuclear energy production has prevented the building of hundreds of large coal-fired power plants.