Coal Ash Is More Radioactive Than Nuclear Waste

Coal Ash Is More Radioactive Than Nuclear Waste

The energy debate is a heated one. Every potential source of energy seems to have both pros and cons, and it can be hard to keep it all straight. In general, plenty of people think that coal is the bad guy for the environment: it produces dirty air and is non-renewable. On the other hand, some people think nuclear power is the worst culprit. The scary thought about nuclear energy is that it's so, so dangerously radioactive. Right? Well, no. This fact turns the tables a bit: The waste produced by coal power plants is more radioactive than nuclear waste. Who would have thought?

When coal burns in power plants to create energy, the waste that is left is called fly ash. This fly ash is the really bad stuff. Before coal is burned, it has trace amounts of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium. After becoming fly ash, the levels of these elements grow to ten times their original potency. This becomes a real problem for the areas around coal power plants. The fly ash leaches into the soil and water around the plants, which then affects the crops. According to one study, when all of a community's food was grown in a coal plant area, radiation doses were 50 to 200 percent higher than those near nuclear plants. Find out more about nuclear power in the video below.

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Key Facts In This Video

  • 1

    Uranium-235 is fissionable, meaning that its nucleus can split apart into smaller atoms, releasing heat and neutrons in the process. (0:26)

  • 2

    As of February 2015, France gets more than 70% of its energy from nuclear power plants, whereas the United States gets about 20%. (1:10)

  • 3

    Nuclear power plants can operate around the clock (unlike wind turbines), and produce more energy than solar panels. (2:09)

See all


Radioactive Decay



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