Radioactivity in Coal Ash and Nuclear Waste

The level of radioactivity that people are exposed to in coal ash is actually higher than the level of exposure caused by nuclear waste. An article published in the respected popular science journal Scientific American in 2007 details this surprising discovery.  Fly ash, the sometimes-airborne residue of coal burning plants, is a concentrated pollutant, the article says, and carries 100 times the radioactive uranium and thorium into the environment that a nuclear power plant emits.

The article was written by Mara Hvistendahl and later updated by Ivan Oransky, editor of Scientific American. The amended article concludes, “…ounce for ounce, coal ash released from a power plant delivers more radiation than nuclear waste shielded via water or dry cask storage.”

Not everyone agrees with the article. Writing in CE Journal, the Journal for the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Tom Yulsman takes issue with the science of Scientific American. The Scientific American sensationalizes and distorts the issue, he writes, and he accuses the on-line magazine of bad journalism.

He mentions that the dangerous nature of fly ash is widely accepted, at least partly due to the Scientific American article. He adds, “The problem is that it is a profoundly preposterous idea unsupported by a single shred of evidence.”

Mr. Yulsman points out that nuclear waste is well shielded, because everyone knows it is dangerous, while the fly ash residue of coal burning only needs to be buried in landfills properly. He mentions that both he and Scientific American agree that the average person is more likely to be hit by lightning that he or she is to be harmed by either coal ash or nuclear waste.

Yet both articles agree that the radioactivity in coal ash or nuclear waste is not the central issue. Concentrating on fly ash leaves out the many other pollutants the use of coal produces, as well as the wrenching manner in which it is produced. Concentrating on the nuclear waste produced at nuclear plants leaves out the hellish consequences when things go wrong.

The calamity at Fukushima illustrates these consequences, which occurred because humans are fallible and nature is unpredictable. The landscape of West Virginia and many other regions, however, shows that coal mining can also be an environmental scourge.

No one can say which energy source is more deadly. Coal burning slowly loads pollution into the environment and steadily increases the radioactivity of the earth’s atmosphere, land, and oceans. The sudden catastrophe at Fukushima, on the other hand, demonstrates that nuclear power can cause immediate and lasting devastation.

Both are unacceptable. Since the world needs power though, it needs power plants. Some will not be as environmentally sound as those in the United States, Japan, and other developed countries.

Developing nations will tend to increase their energy use as they industrialize. Someday, most people will expect to own a car and a TV, and probably most regions will have factories. More power plants will come on line, and often economics will drive their design and construction, not ecology.

The coal ash release versus nuclear waste storage debate is irrelevant to those who have seen the flat-topped hills of West Virginia or the devastation of the Fukushima forbidden zone. It is academic in a world with immediate problems.

Conservation is the answer, if an answer exists. People who care about the earth and about their grandchildren’s children will not wait to decide if nuclear energy is worse, or coal power is worse. They will cut back on their non-renewable energy use now, using every bit of energy-saving technology available, and making choices that decrease energy waste. The less energy people use, the less coal ash and nuclear waste they will generate. That is beyond dispute.