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Radioactivity in Coal

Updated on July 26, 2015
An "Open Pit" Coal Mine
An "Open Pit" Coal Mine

Coal or Nuclear?

Would you suppose that nuclear power plants are a present danger to people who live near them, or even at a distance? It hasn’t proven to be that way other than for the meltdown at Chernobyl. Chernobyl caused considerable harm and still does so. Chernobyl was an anomaly, and there have been no other Chernobyls, either before or since. People talk about the Three Mile Island accident, the one where a little bit of radioactive tritium was released into the atmosphere. There were no documented injuries or illnesses from that. There have been no more Three Mile Islands since that one.

Would you believe that the burning of coal might even be a nuclear resource, or, as this article will explore, a radiation exposure danger to those who live nearby coal-fired power plants?

Where would you prefer to reside – close by a nuclear power plant or next door to a coal-fired power plant?


A Clean Coal-Fired Power Plant?

Before you answer that question, consider this: You can wander all over the world looking for a "clean" coal-fired power plant, but you are most unlikely to find one.

Here is a quotation from an article by Alex Gabbard. (Although you may not believe his words, they are words to which you should pay attention):

"Americans living near coal-fired power plants are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants..."

Most electrical generation, 52% or so, in the United States is from coal-fired plants. Coal is cheap. Coal is plentiful. Burning coal is "dirty." There are a number of not-so-nice things that go up into the air around coal-fired power plants – for example: sulfur and nitrogen oxides and various other gaseous pollutants that contribute to the general neighborhood stink and to such as acid rain. But – there are several items that exit those tall smokestacks that few people know about, and those who do know about them generally do not do much talking about them. What are they?

Radioactive materials that occur naturally – mostly thorium and uranium and the many radioactive daughter products that descend from them.

That’s right. An ordinary lump of dark black coal is loaded with radioactivity. When you burn coal, some of the radioactivity goes up into the air, and some remains within the coal ash. If you breathe that air, some radioactivity enters your body. If it rains and the water leaches radioactivity from a huge pile of coal ash at the power plant, the radioactivity enters the soil in the area and travels with the water down into the water table below that serves both that locale and those downstream as well.

It has been estimated that the ratio of thorium to uranium in coal is probably about 2.5 to 1, the measured quantities of which may average 3.2 to 1.3 parts per million respectively for the two contaminating elements. This can vary considerably, with some coal specimens showing uranium concentrations of between 1 and 10 parts per million, with thorium typically being in 2.5 times greater concentration as noted earlier.

If everything remains about the same as it is today, coal-fired power plants in the United States will release 10,000 tons of thorium and just short of 5,000 tons of uranium into the atmosphere in the year 2037, up from the current levels of 6,000 tons and 2,500 tons each, respectively. Those are big numbers. Overall, the atmospheric releases plus the residual amounts in coal ashes will come to a staggering 145,000-plus tons of uranium and an even larger, 357,000 tons of thorium in 2037 – just within the United States.

All of this radioactivity can "dose" people living close by coal-fired power plants. Do you have to live next door to such a power plant to get a radiation exposure from it? No, but the closer you are, the more your numbers will contribute to the national average, difficult to accurately measure, but which is higher than it need be. Keep in mind that there is no threshold amount of radiation below which radiation does no harm to the body. Any amount of radiation you receive but do not need for some legitimate purpose is harmful.

Those are some of the bad things that come about by using coal to fire electrical power plants.

A Nuclear Power Plant
A Nuclear Power Plant

What to Do?

Can there be any good in coal having this sort of radioactivity contaminating it? Yes, but dealing with that contamination requires, first, that it is widely recognized as being there, and finally, deciding to use the contaminants rather than to discard them. So, we can see that there is a public education requirement and also a need for a nationwide, possibly a worldwide, decision to take advantage of monetarily valuable radiochemical resources that, are now being simply wasted and are allowed to be a dangerous nuisance.

Those tons and tons of radioactive materials can be salvaged and put to use in many different ways, one of which would certainly be in one form or another of nuclear power plants. It seems to be most bizarre that the energy value of the coal being used to fire conventional electrical power plants is less than that of the materials being thrown away and allowed to contaminate the environment with radioactivity and other pollutants. Yes, burning coal to produce electrical power wastes more energy than it produces.

Think about that, and, if you live near a coal-fired power plant, take a deep breath and think about it some more.

Source of some of the above information: Oak Ridge National Laboratories


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    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      10 years ago from USA

      AskAshlie3433 - Thanks for the welcome comments. Coal is of very high importance to the energy needs of the U.S. and of the rest of the world, too. Ways will be developed to make it a "cleaner" and even more useful fuel.

      Gus :-)))

    • AskAshlie3433 profile image


      10 years ago from WEST VIRGINIA

      Being that I am from West Virginia, our coal is a valuable resource to our whole state. It offers the highest paying jobs in our state, besides health care. This is a great hub. This is a problem here, but we are trying to create a plant that stores the carbon and gases into an underground pit, so it doesn't go into the air. They say it is not dangerous, but they have few studies proving so. Our power bills use to be the lowest in the US. Since Obama has shut down are permits, they are going sky high. Coal is important to the whole US. It is a big part to our economy, being that we ship it out. We need to find clean ways to do so though. Great hub Gus. Best wishes.

    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      11 years ago from USA

      Katie - I don't know how things are at electrical substations, but the coal-burners are truly wasteful and bad news as to pollution. In my opinion, there is nothing such as "clean coal" which is an expression bandied about these days.

      Sorry to learn about your Dad. 53 is really too young to leave us to run the world by ourselves.

      Gus :-)

    • KFlippin profile image


      11 years ago from Amazon

      Great hub, had no idea much of the dangers of coal plants, or:

      "Yes, burning coal to produce electrical power wastes more energy than it produces."

      My Dad worked for an electrical utility company most of his adult life, spent the last 10 years of his life working directly at an electrical substation on a daily basis, he died with cancer at 53 years old, and there is some speculation that even these small power stations are quite hazardous to ones health, realize no coal in sight at the substation stage, but still, made me think.

    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      11 years ago from USA

      Milt - We keep on plugging away at things. Check out the hub on the radioactivity in tobacco smoke... Thats a real dinger, that is !

      Gus :-O

    • mquee profile image


      11 years ago from Columbia, SC

      Hi Gus, very informative and interesting material. I never gave any thought to this possibility, but it appears that like so many other things we take for granted, dangerous forces are always around us. This is good stuff, Gus!

    • profile image

      Duchess OBlunt 

      11 years ago

      WOW! I did not know this. Great hub Gus!

    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      11 years ago from USA

      Jess - There is a lot more much like the deal on coal's radioactivity. I just read a report on radioactivity in car exhaust. I know that there are residuals in ordinary (13,13,13) fertilizer because I have measured it. There was a company in Pasadena, Texas that was in the business of making that stuff. They developed 3 huge "slag" piles by their plant, each of the piles being 50 metric tons in content. Each GRAM of that waste contained about 20 pCi worth of radioactive uranium, radium, thorium, etc. 20 pCi is a tiny amount of zap, but there were 150 metric tons of it in those 3 piles. What did Ron Popeil used to say when he did his peddling on TV? "Wait. There is more." :-)))

    • Jess Killmenow profile image

      Jess Killmenow 

      11 years ago from Nowheresville, Eastern United States

      This is a very valuable article, Gus. I hope it ends up being widely quoted. Thanks so much for alerting us to this wasteful danger.


    • GusTheRedneck profile imageAUTHOR

      Gustave Kilthau 

      11 years ago from USA

      BAGT - Thanks for the nice comment. My hot button concerns radioactivity where it had not ought to be. Coal radioactivity is a big deal that the general public seems not to know much about and the "regulators" don't seem to do anything about, if indeed they are truly aware of it. My training is in that area. Let me give you a "for instance..." If you have been a typical cigarette smoker for 25 years or so, your lungs are being bombarded with an equivalent amount of radiation EVERY DAY as you would receive from a chest X-ray EVERY DAY. Did anyone ever tell you about THAT? See why I get all lathered up? The really bad thing about this is that folks have known about things like this, and there have been plenty of warnings in the scientific literature about it ever since the 1960s. Our "leaders" tend to mouth off about lots of stuff, but not much about things like this that are important to our health and well being. Tax cigarettes like crazy, but don't educate anyone about them. Burn coal like mad, but don't do much about the radioactivty being pumped into the air and drained down into the water tables. Socialize health care, but don't do much to really promote health. I am at an age so as not to have to worry over my own self or that of my wife and siblings, but what about my grandkids, my great grandkids, and yours... ? Gus

    • bayareagreatthing profile image


      11 years ago from Bay Area California

      Very thought provoking Gus! I hope that we can continue exploring better sources of energy!!


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