A preponderance of scientific evidence shows that even low doses of ionizing radiation, such as gamma rays and X-rays, are likely to pose some risk of adverse health effects, says a new report from the National Academies’ National Research Council”¦..
Ahh, why do the anti-science extremists always manage to find and/or misrepresent a tiny number of old studies to trumpet their nonsense — but ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.
So who are you going to believe, citizens of Japan and people living near US nuclear reactors? Ann Coulter — or the National Research Council’s Committee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation (!), quoted above?
You can read Coulter’s nonsense in a column called “A Glowing Report On Radiation,” or watch her on Thursday’s “O’Reilly Factor”:
Back to the NRC, which, I might add, is traditionally quite conservative when it comes to these sorts of analyses, doing a full literature review and generally requiring a strong consensus by the committee participants for any major conclusions — in this case 17 MDs or PhDs:
“The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial,” said committee chair Richard R. Monson, associate dean for professional education and professor of epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston. “The health risks “” particularly the development of solid cancers in organs “” rise proportionally with exposure. At low doses of radiation, the risk of inducing solid cancers is very small. As the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk.”
The research is in fact based on empirical data. You can read the whole NRC report, the seventh in a series on this subject dating back decades, here.
I actually first wrote about this report 3 years ago in a post title, “Yes, even low levels of radiation cause harm “” and coal plants are worse than nuclear plants*
*if the nuke meets government regulations “” a big if, as we’ve seen.
Now to the other interesting question: From a radiation perspective, is it worse to live near a coal plant or a nuclear?
Here’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They actually have a very detailed online analysis:
Former ORNL researchers J. P. McBride, R. E. Moore, J. P. Witherspoon, and R. E. Blanco made this point in their article “Radiological Impact of Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants” in the December 8, 1978, issue of Science magazine. They concluded that Americans living near coal-fired power plants are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants that meet government regulations. This ironic situation remains true today and is addressed in this article.
The fact that coal-fired power plants throughout the world are the major sources of radioactive materials released to the environment has several implications. It suggests that coal combustion is more hazardous to health than nuclear power and that it adds to the background radiation burden even more than does nuclear power. It also suggests that if radiation emissions from coal plants were regulated, their capital and operating costs would increase, making coal-fired power less economically competitive.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for such regulations.
UPDATE: Scientific American ran this article in December 2007, “Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste: By burning away all the pesky carbon and other impurities, coal power plants produce heaps of radiation,” which notes:
Dana Christensen, associate lab director for energy and engineering at ORNL, says that health risks from radiation in coal by-products are low. “Other risks like being hit by lightning,” he adds, “are three or four times greater than radiation-induced health effects from coal plants.” And McBride and his co-authors emphasize that other products of coal power, like emissions of acid rain-producing sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrous oxide, pose greater health risks than radiation.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maintains an online database of fly ash-based uranium content for sites across the U.S. In most areas, the ash contains less uranium than some common rocks. In Tennessee’s Chattanooga shale, for example, there is more uranium in phosphate rock.
Robert Finkelman, a former USGS coordinator of coal quality who oversaw research on uranium in fly ash in the 1990s, says that for the average person the by-product accounts for a miniscule amount of background radiation, probably less than 0.1 percent of total background radiation exposure. According to USGS calculations, buying a house in a stack shadow””in this case within 0.6 mile [one kilometer] of a coal plant””increases the annual amount of radiation you’re exposed to by a maximum of 5 percent. But that’s still less than the radiation encountered in normal yearly exposure to X-rays.
So why does coal waste appear so radioactive? It’s a matter of comparison: The chances of experiencing adverse health effects from radiation are slim for both nuclear and coal-fired power plants””they’re just somewhat higher for the coal ones. “You’re talking about one chance in a billion for nuclear power plants,” Christensen says. “And it’s one in 10 million to one in a hundred million for coal plants.”
So it looks to be a low risk. Though I wouldn’t want coal ash dumped in my neighborhood (see “The day ‘clean coal’ died” and “Second TVA coal ash pond ruptures “” at Widows Creek coal plant“).