Absurd Claims Compare Coal Ash to Nuclear Waste

            Proving that some people will say almost anything in their single-minded determination to attack coal ash, a number of environmental activists have recently tried to draw comparisons between coal ash and radioactive waste.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster unfolding in Japan has prompted a spate of blog entries and news posts by people claiming coal ash is a radioactive threat. The posts mostly rely on a December 2007 article in Scientific American that featured the grossly misleading headline: “Coal Ash is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste.”

            Scientific American’s article did not compare the radioactivity of coal ash to nuclear waste, however.  What it examined was radiation released by coal-fueled power plants compared to radiation released by properly functioning nuclear power plants.  Since properly functioning nuclear power plants effectively contain all of their radiation, the extremely small emissions of radioactivity from burning coal are larger.  But to claim that coal ash is more radioactive than the waste contained inside nuclear power plants is ludicrous and, as the Fukushima disaster shows, nuclear power plants can’t be counted on to properly function all of the time.

            People are exposed to radiation every day from numerous sources.  For instance, if you have bananas sitting in an earthenware bowl on your granite countertop, you are being bombarded with radiation from all three – your fruit, your dishes and your counter.  Many people live in houses built on radioactive soils.  You are exposed to radiation every time you step out in the sun or ride in an airplane.

            So how radioactive is coal ash really?  In essence, coal ash is nothing more than rocks and soil that were mixed in with the coal and would not burn.  Therefore, the radioactivity of coal ash is similar to that of rocks and soil.

            The U.S. Geological Survey studied radioactivity in coal and coal ash from across the United States.  USGS’s conclusion was: “Radioactive elements in coal and fly ash should not be sources of alarm.  The vast majority of coal and majority of fly ash are not significantly enriched in radioactive elements, or in associated radioactivity, compared to common soil or rocks.”  For a complete copy of the USGS study, click here:

            Frightening people with inaccurate and misleading labels like “toxic” and “radioactive” may help raise money or titillate readers, but it also hurts efforts to do good things for the environment – such as recycling coal ash in safe applications.  Remember: The best solution to coal ash disposal problems is to stop throwing it away.

Posted by: on: Mar 30, 2011 @ 11:04