Radioactive coal

October 13, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

This just in, from Scientific American:

[T]he 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. 

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 . . . [E]stimated radiation doses ingested by people living near the coal plants were equal to or higher than doses for people living around the nuclear facilities.

Not that the risk of radiation from either coal plants or nuclear power plants appears to be significant for those living nearby.


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Category: Energy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. This is one of those instances where what you think you know is the opposite of the truth.

    Recently I had a chemist friend asked me which I thought was worse for the environment, wax coated paper cups or styrofoam. Evil artificial styrofoam, right?

    I was surprised to find out that the the paper cup uses more energy to produce, generates far more pollution and is not biodegradable!

    Styrofoam cups are easier to produce, lighter to transport and easily reused and recycled!

  2. Dave says:

    Right. Most people who take an honest look at nuclear energy have known this dirty secret about coal for a long time. Unfortunately, the word 'nuclear' carries so many irrational boogeyman connotations for people, that we still suffer under a horrendous bias against it: enormous licensing costs, EPA impact studies, custom construction and design regimes, and don't get me started on the insanity of storing nuclear waste in barrels out in the parking lot at 105 locations (guarded by a single barbed wire fence in many cases) instead of doing something sensible consolidating those same barrels under a mountain in BFE Nevada.

    I am convinced that nuclear energy will be retarded from its full potential until about 2030. Why then? Because Jane Fonda and the rest of those damn dirty hippies will be dead by then, and rationality will return to the discussion. Even Obama, who seems pretty rational and sensible about this stuff, is very careful to avoid the N(uclear) word in his energy policy discussions. He is pro-nuclear (he hired a nuclear scientist for his energy secretary), but he'll never vocalize that, in fear of pissing off the left-wing anti-nuke wing of the DEM.

  3. Jay Fraz says:

    Hmmmm….learn something new everyday.

    Dave: Was not aware of the Obama nuclear connection…even if he doesn't know all the details of nuclear energy, at least he can pronounce "nuclear" 🙂

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    I actually know a fellow who won't eat microwaved food because it's been exposed to electromagnetic radiation 🙄

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Whenever the word "Radioactive" is mentioned, it seems to conjure memorie of "The China Syndrome", Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

    There is something few people seem to associate with radioactive material. In addition to the radioactive properties, they also have chemical properties, and most of the naturally occuring radioactive elemets are heavy metals that are toxic even in stable isotopes.

    Newer coalfire plants use scrubber systems that sprays water into the smoke to trap the smoke particles and produce a slurry that is stored in sludge ponds near the plant. This process concentrates the heavy metals even more.

    At the Kingston Power plant near Knoxville Tn, the ash slurry spill of December 2008, local streams have tested 30 to 300 time ths save limit of arsenic, heavy metals such as mecury and lead. No doubt there are radio active metals in the mix as well.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    BTW, there are some really bad things about burning coal for energy. Check out this post and the related posts mentioned therein:

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