Few can argue the fact that nuclear power, when operating properly is a cleaner source of energy than burning coal. The question is, how much radiation is actually emitted from the coal burning process. According to the USGS, the level is negligible. In fact, they point out that the amount of radiation from fly ash is typically below the level found in the earth’s rocks, such as granite, phosphate rocks and some shale. Radioactive material is found in the rocks that make up the earth, and in the coal from the earth that is burned for fuel. The question then has been raised as to how much of this radioactivity is released when coal is burned and how it affects the environment and the population when compared to nuclear waste. The comparison, however, is centered mainly on the actuality of how much radiation is currently being emitted through fly ash, or the ash that burning coal produces, and the potential of radiation emissions from nuclear waste should it be exposed to the atmosphere.
While coal is primarily composed of organic matter, there are also minerals and trace elements which cause some people to be concerned. As with the rocks found in the earth, some elements such as uranium, thorium, and their by-products, radium and radon, are naturally radioactive. However, overall, these trace elements are less harmful than other substances found in coal such as arsenic, selenium, or even mercury.
Studies have been done to determine the exact amount of radiation released from burning coal. These studies, between 1975 and 1985, indicated that the maximum radiation dose to any person within 1km of any power plant is equivalent to 1 to 5 percent, and radiation from coal burning is even less. In fact, of all the sources of radiation that humans are exposed too, coal burning is relatively low on the list, at less than 1 percent or the 82 percent found in the natural environment. X-rays lead the list of man made radiation sources at 11 percent.
As opposed to nuclear waste, fly ash residue that settles on the land and in the water has been studied and has always tested low enough to be considered non hazardous waste. Water sources near areas that are exposed to the ash have been tested as well, and initial results indicated that the concentrations of both radium and uranium were well below the drinking water standard of 20 parts per billion.
The USGS concludes that radiation emitted from fly ash is minimal compared to naturally occurring radiation in normal rocks, and that even though the ash is a component in the making of concrete products, there is no indication that it is a contributing factor in radon content since this is also found naturally in the earth.
The comparison between coal burning and nuclear waste boils down to which produces more radiation on a daily basis. Obviously a well maintained nuclear waste facility produces no radiation, and fly ash produces some, although not in amounts that are considered harmful or that exceed those emitted from the earth itself. The question of potential is another matter, and it has been pointed out that should a nuclear waste facility be breached, such as in a natural disaster, the amount of radiation and the long term consequences would be much more extensive than a similar accident in a coal burning facility.