What is more dangerous, coal energy or nuclear energy?

You’ve heard the politicians talk about clean coal technology and you’ve probably seen the clean coal advertisements as well. Both the politicians and the advertising campaigns have failed to answer two questions directly, “What is clean coal technology, exactly, and what benefits does clean coal technology promise to bring to your typical coal power plant?”  Both of these questions are fair questions that seem perfectly normal to ask.  I asked myself the same two questions, but no one could really answer either of them directly.  Clean coal technology is a technology that exists mainly in theory but not in practice.  At the time of this writing there isn’t a single coal power plant in the United States that has any sort of technology being used that you could classify as “clean coal technology.”  The beauty of clean coal technology is that is doesn’t have to exist yet.  When enough hype is created over something that is still in its infancy, then eventually you begin to believe it is real and that we should invest in it in order to make our future a cleaner one.  Since clean coal technology basically doesn’t exist, and since no one can give a exact definition of what this technology will do, I have come up with my own basic definition.

Essentially what clean coal technology is promising, is to clean up what is coming out of the smock stack(s) of a coal power plant. Clean coal technology is defined on Wikipedia as:

Clean coal technology is an umbrella term used to describe technologies being developed that aim to reduce the environmental impact of coal energy generation.[1]. These include chemically washing minerals and impurities from the coal, gasification (see also IGCC), treating the flue gases with steam to remove sulfur dioxide,carbon capture and storage technologies to capture the carbon dioxide from the flue gas and dewatering lower rank coals (brown coals) to improve the calorific quality, and thus the efficiency of the conversion into electricity.

Clean coal technology usually addresses atmospheric problems resulting from burning coal. Historically, the primary focus was on sulfur dioxide and particulates, due to the fact that it is the most important gas which leads to acid rain. More recent focus has been on carbon dioxide (due to its likely impact on global warming) as well as other pollutants[2]. Concerns exist regarding the economic viability of these technologies and the timeframe of delivery[3], potentially high hidden economic costs in terms of social and environmental damage[4], and the costs and viability of disposing of removed carbon and other toxic matter[5] [6].

I believe all of these ideas are novel, but the idea of CO2 being captured seems to be quite prevalent. This seems to be a very important thing on everyone’s agenda. Even on President Obama’s site, the only thing he mentions in the clean coal technology portion of his site is carbon sequestrating. It seems like we should focus on some other major issues with coal as well, like the fact that coal power plants emit radioactive particles. Coal plants emit more radiation into a surrounding environment than does a similarly sized nuclear power plant (Source: Scientific American and ORNL). Studies have shown that people experience more radioactivity next to coal plants, so why isn’t the general public afraid of coal power like they are nuclear power? Perception. Nuclear power has gotten the reputation as being highly radioactive and extremely dangerous. Nuclear power can be all of those horrible things, if it isn’t handled correctly.

Nuclear power isn’t a perfect energy producer, it has some drawbacks since it uses uranium, a finite resource, which, like crude oil or coal, does not have an endless supply, and long-term storage of the nuclear waste can be dangerous. Handling nuclear waste is a very serious problem, but coal power has a very similar problem with coal ash. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal combustion and it contains several toxic trace elements like uranium and heavy metals that are dangerous in certain quantities. Why then isn’t coal getting scrutinized for its byproduct, coal ash? Why isn’t there the same amount of panic towards a coal ash spill as there is for a nuclear waste spill? Again, I would have to blame this on perception and ignorance towards nuclear energy. The general public is afraid of nuclear waste because of the negative attention it generally gets, but much of the general public is unaware that coal ash is also a very dangerous substance.

Several dangers of coal ash are known, for example, it is said to increase the chance of cancer in surrounding communities and it can contaminate water with toxic metals and chemicals (See EPA Map for some known contaminated water sites).  Coal ash contamination is a very serious issue that needs to be dealt with, but for some reason the EPA has only been “promising” action since 2000.  Promises don’t help people much, especially when coal ash spills kill wildlife, destroy homes, pollute soil and contaminate water.  Below is a picture from the December 2008 Tennessee coal ash spill.

Courtesy of Brian Stansberry on Wikimedia

Courtesy of Brian Stansberry on Wikimedia

Without much doubt, coal will continue to be a important source for producing electricity. The need for clean coal technology is valid, but what part of coal is getting cleaned? Are we going to start storing coal ash in safer more contained places, instead of in open ponds, landfills and abandoned caverns?  Coal ash has the potential of being used for many things like cement, paints and metal castings, but very little of it gets used for any of this.  I hope coal ash begins to be disposed of properly, in a more environmentally and human friendly manner.

Neither coal power nor nuclear power are perfect solutions.  Coal, however, will continue to be used and it makes some sense to use coal. In a country that is in need of electricity and a country that has a significant amount of coal, it only makes sense to use it in certain applications.  Pushing for alternatives other than nuclear and other than coal would be the ultimate goal for generating societies electricity.

Ultimately, I hope to give an increased awareness of coal power and the major issues inherited in using it as a source for electricity. Hopefully coal stops being, what seems like, the first choice in power generation and maybe the EPA will actually start regulating the disposal of coal ash.

6 thoughts on “What is more dangerous, coal energy or nuclear energy?

  1. Barry

    While I agree that the definition of “clean coal” is very broad I think it’s important that people understand what is possible with coal and new technology.


    There is modern gasification technology that will revolutionize the way the world processes coal. Coal represents 67% of the world’s energy reserves and is most abundant in the largest developing nations with the highest energy demands. Not only does it make sense to continue to use coal, with new technology, it would be irresponsible not to.

  2. Zach Hudson Post author


    I agree that using coal is going to continue and needs to continue. The point of this article is not to suggest halting the use of coal completely. What I am suggesting that we starting treating coal ash like it isn’t harmless, because it is. Also I do suggest that when building new power plants that coal not be the default choice. There are plenty of other options that can work. (It all depends on the situation and location).

    Gasification does promise some very good things. It doesn’t seem to solve the major problems that I mentioned in my article. You still will have heavy metal pollution and you will still get some sort of ash or slag substance (from what I read this depends on the type of system used). The other thing to keep in mind is there are very few gasification-based plants in the world. I don’t know that we will get much concrete data about the actually benefits of gasification until it is more widely used.

    Either way, we will see, I hope gasification can keep its promises.


  3. Pingback: Energy Strain » Blog Archive » Is The Obama Administration Good For Nuclear Energy?

  4. gowthaman from canada

    coal is a fossil fuel it causes global warming it is very bad for our health. nuclear is a very dangerous source of energy .which one is more dangerous? why?

    1. Zach Hudson Post author

      Neither coal nor nuclear are perfect sources of energy. The point of this article is to simply make people aware of the fact that coal is a dangerous, unhealthy source of energy. I find that many people in the general public look at nuclear energy with a sense of fright, while many look at coal power as a little dirty but not a big deal. Hopefully, someone read this and now sees that coal, the common electricity producer, is not harmless and that nuclear energy, not harmless either, is not enormously evil in comparison to coal.


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