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Coal Ash: The Glowing National Security Threat

BY Terry J. Allen

If you know nothing else about radiation, know these three things: It is carcinogenic. It is cumulative. And there is no known safe dose.

Like the proverbial broken clock, the nuclear industry is occasionally right, as when it charges that a coal plant releases more radiation than a nuclear power plant.

The gloat relies on a narrow frame, but it is true that burning coal concentrates naturally occurring radioactive materials including uranium and thorium–along with heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead. When filtered out by smokestack control equipment, the toxins do not magically disappear. Rather, they accumulate in the slag that remains, so the cleaner the air, the filthier and more radioactive the coal ash.

Linked to cancer, organ failure, and other serious health problems, coal ash from U.S. power plants is building up in some 900 lagoons, old mines and quarries in almost every state. Sixty-seven of 584 U.S. coal ash dump sites have leaked, contaminating nearby earth and groundwater. Some slag–heavy metal, uranium and all–is recycled into roads, concrete and wallboard.

Around the world, the 6 billion tons of coal burned annually creates 650 million tons of coal ash. China, which unveils a new coal facility every seven to 10 days, generates more than half that total, and adds it to the 2.7 billion tons of coal combustion wastes it already stores.

The radioactive content is small, but if you know nothing else about radiation, know these three things: It is carcinogenic. It is cumulative. And there is no known safe dose. No one can predict how much radiation-caused DNA damage it takes to trigger birth defects and cancers in a particular individual. So when you hear the familiar PR sunshine speech–“You get more radiation from a day at the beach or a mammogram, a CT scan, a cross-country plane ride, a leak at your local nuclear power plant or coal plant emissions”–reach for the BS detector and a lead shield.

As the mountains of concentrated waste from coal-burning power plants grow, so does the volume of their radioactive components. An Oak Ridge Laboratory Review report predicts that by 2040, a century of coal burning will have released into the world’s environment 828,632 tons of uranium, including 5,883 tons of U-235, along with more than 2 million tons of thorium.

There’s figurative gold in them thar hills. In March, Toronto-based Sparton Resources signed a deal to recycle uranium from China’s slag heaps. The company can extract almost a half pound of uranium per ton, Sparton President Lee Barker told the Wall Street Journal. After three years, he expects Sparton’s China operations to produce 2 million pounds of uranium annually.

Although recycling sounds green, precipitating uranium involves sulfuric and hydrochloric acids, and other highly toxic chemicals that have wreaked havoc in poorly regulated extraction industries around the world.

This includes the United States, where coal’s radioactive by-products are not classified as radioactive waste, and where many storage sites escape rigorous monitoring. Citing fear of terrorism, the Obama administration has exacerbated the oversight problem by removing from public records the locations of the 44 coal ash dump sites that pose a “high hazard.”

Environmentalists charge that official and corporate malfeasance is a worse security threat than al-Qaeda plots. They cite the 2008 failure of the earthen wall of a 40-acre coal ash disposal pond at a Kingston, Tenn., power plant. The disaster unleashed a 1 billion-gallon flood that covered 300 acres with thick sludge, contaminating rivers and land with concentrated toxins.

A more frightening risk could come from all that uranium, which can be extracted and processed into yellowcake, a first step toward enriched uranium. The source–coal ash–is abundant, and the technology to extract enough uranium to make a dirty or “clean” bomb, while expensive and time consuming, is well known.

Compared to nuclear power plants, and within the context of coal’s health and environmental risks–mining accidents, lung and other diseases, global warming, mountaintop removal, etc.–radioactive slag is not the paramount concern. But given the cumulative and unpredictable impacts of increasing human exposure to carcinogenic radiation from environmental and medical sources, the dangers are real and rising.

Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine's monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.

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