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Coal and radioactivity

Dear Reader,

Unless you have been asleep or hiding in a hole you will be aware that in the last few months that a serious nuclear reactor accident has occurred in Japan. After this event people are now asking the questions of “do we need nuclear power” and “should we have nuclear power”. These are perfectly good questions but I say that before you answer them it is important to get all the facts and then think, to make an answer to such an important question when you do not have all the required facts (or to answer without thinking) is plain stupid and reckless.

For those of you who do not know about it I would like to bring your attention to the little known fact that coal can be very radioactive. The problem is that coal often contains uranium, radium and a series of other natural radioisotopes. The level of the radium-226 in coal ash can be very high, the ash from some coal power stations is very radioactive.

Too radioactive for making house bricks for example. It all depends on the coal which was used to fire the boiler. Some coal is clean while other coals are full of radioactivity.

I know that the idea of a vital force which makes natural nice and good exists despite the efforts of  Friedrich Wöhler who showed that a man made sample of a chemical is identical to a natural sample. Some people like to think that if it is natural then it is good while if it is man made then it is nasty and bad. I can think of plenty of nasty natural things, for example cocaine.

Cocaine is a natural drug harvested from a plant, I would challenge anyone to stand up and say that cocaine is good for either the user or society. On the other hand bread is a man made product which is a good form of food, other than a few people who have a medical condition which prevent them eating bread it is a substance which is close to harmless. (Have you ever seen a loaf of bread hanging on a tree growing there ?)

But back to coal and radioactivity, the majority of the radioactivity from the Fukuashima accident is beta/gamma. Most man made radioisotopes from a nuclear power plant are beta emitters. Beta emitters are not good for you, but as anyone who works with radioactivity can tell you “internal contamination with a beta emitter is not normally as serious as having an alpha emitter inside you”.

So as the majority of the radioactivity from the accident is beta and the main isotopes of concern have short half lives of days or at worst 30 years we have some good news.

The radioactivity will go away even if we do not lift a finger to act, and the isotopes released in large amounts are not the worst of the worst radioisotopes.

On the other hand a lot of natural radioactivity is associated with radium-226 and its decay chain, radium-226 is a nasty alpha emitter which decays to an alpha emitting gas (radon-222). The radioactive daughters of radon-222 includes plenty of alpha emitters which can stick in your lungs and give you cancer (not nice). Also the half life of radium-226 is long (1600 years), so the radium will not decay away in my lifetime. Already almost half the cesium-137 from Chernobyl has decayed away, but almost none of the radium isolated by Marie Curie will have had time to decay by now. Radium-226 is in many ways a horror isotope which refuses to lay down and die.

Coal ash can have a lot of radium-226, so as a result the burning of coal can pose a nasty radioactive threat to both plant workers and the general public. Please if you are considering a switch from nuclear to coal then consider this radium problem.


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