Radioactive emissions from coal-fired power stations

A poorly child

A poorly child

Nothing is as simple as it seems.

A recent story in the Guardian has brought to the fore something many physicists have known for years: that radioactive emissions from coal-fired power stations dwarf radioactive emissions from nuclear power stations. The Guardian story is sad for two reasons. Firstly, it highlights the plight of disabled children in a desperately poor part of the world. However, the story is equally sad because its allegation that uranium poisoning from coal-fired power stations is to blame is simply an assertion and the Guardian journalist in question seems uninterested in clarifying the central question: are these children’s birth defects dues to uranium poisoning? Let me expand:

Thorium and Uranium metals are present in coal at the level of typically a few milligrams per kilogram of coal. After combustion, these radioactive metals become concentrated in the ash which is then disposed of. In the UK I believe, but have not been able to confirm, that most of this ash is used for the manufacture of building materials – breeze blocks and cement. In other parts of the world the ash is used for a variety of purposes and is occasionally spread on farmland, or just left in giant heaps. Because of the very large amount of coal which is burned for power generation in the UK and around the world, this results in a significant amount of radioactive material entering our environment, much more than would be allowed to enter our environment from nuclear power stations.

The Guardian article simply asserts that the plight of these children is caused by Uranium.  But in the whole article there is not a single argument for a connection. The trouble starts in paragraph 3 which states:

Health workers in the Punjabi cities of Bathinda and Faridkot knew something was terribly wrong when they saw a sharp increase in the number of birth defects, physical and mental abnormalities, and cancers. They suspected that children were being slowly poisoned.

This is critical. In every country on Earth children are born with abnormalities and it would be satisfying to be able to blame something or someone for each such case, but that is just not possible. Notice there is no indication of, for example, when they noticed, or how sharp the rise was, or what the level of birth defects is compared  to other places in India. This article simply asserts that the connection is obvious. Others disagree. This link describes the fact that no rational study has been undertaken, and that the person who runs the centre had recently asserted that the children’s problems were caused by Mercury, but this was unsuccessful. Asserting that Uranium is the problem is – according to this author –  simply another way to gain attention and hopefully money.

As I said at the start, nothing is as simple as it seems. In this case I would like to express my frustration at a Guardian article – from which I expect better – simply fails to address the salient point of this issue: that there is no known causal connection between these children’s plight and the levels of uranium in their hair.

In the UK

It is interesting that in the UK, the uranium in ash from power stations is considered potentially hazardous, but not for radiological reasons. It is considered hazardous because, like other heavy metals such as lead, it is chemically poisonous and accumulates slowly. And Uranium is probably not the most hazardous substance emitted from power stations and present in ash. This article on CNN mentions specifically mentions arsenic, lead, chromium, and selenium and I would not be surprised to find many others. I have asked my friend and colleague John Makepeace about this and I hope to have more information soon.

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