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News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism
This item was posted on December 31, 2008, and it was categorized as Uncategorized.
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The Advanced Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory emits the eerie blue light characteristic of Cherenkov radiation. The light is produced by charged particles emitted by fission of nuclear fuel in the reactor.


Editor’s note: This version of the story corrects some errors I made in the original version of the post. The first version mistakenly said that the Scientific American headline read that coal ash is 100 times more radioactive than nuclear waste. In fact, it says simply that coal is more radioactive than nuclear waste (without putting a number on it). Also, this version corrects the affiliation of Ivan Oransky, the managing editor of Scientific American online, and a misspelling of his name. I regret the errors.


The idea that coal ash is 100 times more radioactive than nuclear waste has been making the rounds among bloggers and Twitterers discussing the coal ash catastrophe in Tennessee, thanks to a headline which makes that assertion in Scientific American online. In fact, Google the words in the headline and you’ll come up with dozens of Web sites that have repeated this statement.

The problem is that it is a profoundly preposterous idea unsupported by a single shred of evidence.

I must admit that I was taken in by the headline when I first read it a few days ago — I swallowed it hook, line and sinker because I believed in the credibility of Scientific American. But in so doing I violated one of the cardinal rules I tell my journalism students: If it sounds wrong, it most likely is. (And the only way to find out is to check it out.)

Ivan Oransky, a medical doctor, as well as the managing editor of Sciam online, former deputy editor of The Scientist and an instructor of journalism at both NYU and the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, City College of New York should know better.

Using several research studies as evidence, the story does make a convincing case that, as it says, “the fly ash emitted by a power plant . . . carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.” But that is a completely different statement than fly ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. What it really means is that radiation emissions to the environment from an operating nuclear power plant actually are lower than the radioactivity emitted from a coal plant through fly ash residues. That’s because the reactor vessel, fuel rods, and any radioactive waste on site are well shielded, whereas fly ash, with small amounts of deadly radioactive substances, simply is emitted into the environment.

Even then, as the Scientific American article points out, the radioactive content of fly ash is relatively low, and nearby residents are more likely to be struck by lightning than to develop health effects from that radiation. That’s not to downplay the risk — it is there, and it is real, just as the risk of being struck by lightning is real. The article states this clearly and responsibly. In fact, the story itself is both fascinating and well documented.

But how do we get from the relatively small excess risk detailed in the story to coal ash being 100 ties deadlier than radioactive waste? — which would kill you in a matter of minutes if you stood next to it unshielded. How could it possibly be that the material responsible for the Chernobyl cataclysm, and which killed workers there, is actually less dangerous than the coal fly ash that unprotected workers are now scooping up with heavy machinery in Tennessee? (I haven’t seen any of them keel over and die yet from acute exposure to radioactivity.)

Well, it can’t be. It is a patently absurd assertion. I pressed Oransky about this, and he responded not by changing the headline and issuing a correction but by changing the wording of the story (which was needed) and tacking on an editor’s note at the end. Here’s how the note concludes: “As a general clarification, ounce for ounce, coal ash released from a power plant delivers more radiation than nuclear waste shielded via water or dry cask storage.”

I hesitate to say this, because I respect Scientific American and Oransky, but those are what one of my editors years ago liked to call “weasel words.”

It doesn’t take a grammarian to parse what’s going on here. Oransky is admitting that despite what the headline says, fly ash most definitely is not more radioactive than nuclear waste. Instead, I think he is saying that if you stood next to a pile of fly ash you’d probably get a bigger radiation dose than if you stood next to radioactive waste that is adequately shielded.

Hmmm. I guess that’s why they shield the stuff — to protect people from the deadly radiation it emits. But fly ash doesn’t need to be shielded. It needs to be landfilled responsibly. (Too bad they didn’t get that message at the TVA.)

I honestly don’t know why Oransky insists on leaving the headline intact. He is doing the public a grave disservice by perpetuating unfounded fears, which are now circulating far and wide. And by doing that, he ultimately is inviting dismissal of the real risks posed by fly ash, because while people will at first be taken in by the stunning headline, many will realize later that they’ve been had. (Especially if they read the editor’s note!) That’s exactly what happened to me when I first read the headline and then repeated it in a blog post here a few days ago. 

I corrected my error, using the strike out feature to be totally transparent to readers, and I also issued a retraction. I urge Oransky to do the same.

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This thing has 12 Comments

  1. Posted December 31, 2008 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I read the Scientific American article that you linked to. It seems that they supported their premise. Yes their headline is a gotcha that overplays the radiation aspect, but your headline is a gotcha as well. Coal waste as typically stored emits more radiation that radioactive material as typically stored, and I believe that this is the point. The energy industry has been overly lax in protecting the environment and people from the risks present in their waste. People need to understand that once the carbon is burned in coal, all of the toxic impurities still remain and are concentrated. These impurities vary from coal field to coal field, but are always present, and always represent a risk. So what if they clean the smoke stacks of airborne toxins, only to put these same concentrated toxins on the ground, or worse, as they become toxic (and sometimes radioactive) leachate that enters our streams, rivers, lakes, water wells and oceans. It’s still toxic. It still makes people ill. People will die as the result of coal waste. We must once and for all find cleaner solutions to our energy challenge, and begin to live upon this planet as if it’s the only planet we have, as stewards for future generations … not capitalists who realize short term gains, that become long term tragedy’s.

    Every year 38,000 heart attacks occur because of pollution from coal-fired power plants.

    Every year 12,000 hospital admissions and 550,000 people suffering asthma attacks result from power plant pollution.

  2. Posted December 31, 2008 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Excellent commentary on the significance of word choice, headlines and transparency of error correction. The litmus test is public perception. And judging how this misperception echoed across the blogosphere and elsewhere, the story fails to accurately communicate the radioactive risk.
    The goal of an editor’s note shouldn’t be to parse and explain to prove a story is technically accurate. The goal is effective communication of truth.
    Water is also far deadlier than grizzly bears properly contained in a secure zoo. You can drown in water; you can’t get near the bears.

  3. Posted December 31, 2008 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    M’Lynn: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. And I agree with much of what you say. The trouble, though, is that the overwhelming majority of readers of that headline aren’t going to understand it the way you do, and they are now posting on blogs, and emailing, Twittering and Facebooking their friends with the objectively false statement that coal ash is 100 times more radioactive than nuclear waste.

    Yes, coal ash contains toxins. Yes it contains radioactive substances. And yes, pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people. So THAT is what the article and headline should say. Our primary responsibility as journalists is to tell the truth, not to lie or even mislead, as this headline clearly does.

    And so I must disagree with you about “gotcha” headlines. In journalism, the ends (hooking readers) do not justify the means.

    Journalism already is in a major crisis right now. If journalists abandon truth telling, our profession will surely die — much to the detriment of society.

  4. Marilyn Elie
    Posted December 31, 2008 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Everybody makes mistakes if they work hard enough and live long enough. It is an inevitable function of life. The importnt thing to do is to correct them as soon as possible and as publicly as possible. That’s what you’ve done. Your transparency is really appreciated. The fly ash/nuclear waste comparison is a lie that the nuclear industry has been pushing for years. It’s too bad that Scientific American gave it credibility and I share your hope that they will make amends with a clear version of the truth. Congratulations on a good lesson in investigative and honest journalism.

  5. John Manuel
    Posted January 1, 2009 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your clarifications on this. The Scientific American headline is absolutely misleading. I can only imagine what the people living next to the Cumberland Park (VA)development will think (and say) after getting wind of this “fact” about fly ash. They are justly concerned about the leachate from this site. To suggest that they are at more risk of radiation poisoning than living next to a nuclear waste dump could send them from concern to panic.

  6. Posted January 1, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    The casual reader may not be aware that the pro-nuclear lobby is discrediting coal as a way to promote their fuel of choice.

    On the other hand, Nuclear may have gotten a bad reputation because their tragedy’s are so sensational. Coal just got a taste of this medicine via the TVA disaster. The bottom line is, we are at a point in our population growth and exploitation and abuse of natural resources that the margin of error when it comes to the environments ability to absorb and rebound from human indiscretions is at an all time low.

    From this day forward we need to be much more mindful, and better stewards. I don’t really expect TVA will have the means, or the interest to completely mitigate their disaster. It is simply too enormous. They will make a token effort as it serves their purpose. The rest will be regraded and hydro-mulched, or some such nonsense. Even if TVA were able to substantially clean up the sludge, the costs to ratepayers and taxpayers would be prohibitive. Business interests and investor returns will in the end rule the day. Our hope for survival as a species hinges on changing our priorities in the middle of this circle of blue we find ourselves living on. We must place the environment (that which sustains all life) as well as people – before profits. It will be interesting to see how the TVA spin doctors (public relations) crafts their company line.

    Arguing the relative radioactivity of one waste compared to another is kind of like discussing the merits of being shot versus being hung or drowned. The conversation ought to be focused on solutions – how are we going to effectively lobby for safe, clean, energy, and put the production of toxic waste behind us once and for all as nothing more than a historical footnote; an shameful period in human history.

  7. Posted January 4, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    You have missed the point of the Scientific American article.

    It is obviously not true that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste, because nuclear waste is so concentrated. However, coal-burning plants do release more radioactivity into the environment than do nuclear plants. Moreover, the number of radioactive atoms emitted per year into the environment by a coal plant is about 1.5 times the number of radioactive atoms which go into (fully contained and stored) nuclear waste of a nuclear plant producing the same amount of electricity. The coal waste is less radioactive just because the radioactive atoms are dispersed within a huge amount of non-radioactive (yet environmentally harmful) material: carbon dioxide, fly ash, scrubber sludge and other gaseous emissions; and because the radioactive half-lives of the uranium and thorium from coal waste is much longer than that of some components of nuclear waste. To be more specific…

    Coal contains uranium, thorium, radium, radon and other radioactive elements at typical concentrations of several parts per million, ranging up to 50 parts per million or more [see references given below]. This gets concentrated tenfold in coal ash and in airborne particulates (smoke). The amount of radioactive uranium and thorium discharged by U.S. coal-fired plants is roughly 3000 tons per year: 1 ½ times more radioactive atoms (with nearly the same uranium isotope-mix) as from nuclear plants. Nuclear-nuclear waste does contain short-lived radioactive components which are significantly more dangerous; however, this stuff is completely contained, whereas coal-nuclear waste is dumped in landfills and the atmosphere. A careful estimate (J.P. McBride et al, Science 202, 1978) shows that people living near U.S. coal plants receive higher doses of radioactivity than those living near nuclear plants, although coal’s other ravages are worse.

    The main reference for the paragraph is “Radiological Impact of Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants” by J.P.McBride, R.E. Moore, J.P. Witherspoon and R.E. Blanco, Science, 8 December 1978, Vol. 202, Number 4372, pp. 1045-1050 http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/202/4372/1045
    A draft version of this article is available in pdf format at http://www.ornl.gov/info/reports/1977/3445605115087.pdf See also

    Regarding the total number of atoms in “coal nuclear waste”… Table ES1 of the “Electric Power Annual” http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epa_sum.html says that U.S. coal-fired electrical plants consumed 1.04 billion tons of coal in 2006. McBride et al (previous paragraph) estimate that U.S. coal contains, on average, 1 part per million uranium and 2 parts per million thorium. Thus the annual output of these two radioactive elements from coal-fired plants is roughly 1000 and 2000 tons, respectively. The radioactive waste from all U.S. nuclear plants amounts to 2000 tons annually, of which about 95% is uranium, with a nearly natural isotope ratio (mostly U-238, with 0.9% U-235; as compared to 0.7% U-235 in natural uranium from mines and in coal).

  8. Tim Bond
    Posted March 22, 2009 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    This is just patently DUMB. Who cares whether spent nuclear fuel is more radioactive. What matters is what is expelled into the environment. You have to put yourself in a position to defend the likes of thorium spewing coal fired power plants to make this point, and all for what? Do you understand that for over 50 years we have been generating so-called “nuclear waste” and where are all the problems? The anti-nuclear lobbyists have worked to prevent it from being stored in a central depository, so the spent fuel remains on site in dry casks when the run out of room in the pools, and STILL no problems. You call it “waste” but none of you even account for the fact that over 92% of the energy originally found in it, remains to be used. So, if your own garbage had that much value, would you call it throw it out? The reality is that because of stringent NRC and EPA standards it’s far safer for someone to live near a nuclear power plant than to stand next to the granite statue in the U.S. Capital building, and far more safe than breathing the dirty fly ash which contains thorium and sulfur dioxide and all sorts of other nastys. Before people even begin to discuss the issue of what they call “nuclear waste” they ought to take some time to learn what exactly the material IS, they are prognosticating about.

  9. Tim Bond
    Posted March 22, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Here’s your Fly Ash:

    Excessive exposures to respirable particulate (dust) over an extended period of time may result in the development of pulmonary diseases such as silicosis

    The following carcinogenicity classifications for crystalline silica have been established by the following agencies: IARC: Group 1 carcinogenic in humans NIOSH: Carcinogen, with no further categorization NTP: Known Carcinogen

    Material may contain crystalline silica, a chemical that has been determined by the agencies listed above to cause cancer and other chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects and other reproductive harm. Inhalation of dust above established or recommended exposure levels should be avoided by use of proper ventilation and/or use of NIOSH approved respirator.

    But the main point is that this stuff is pumped into our atmosphere hourly, each year tens of millions of tons!

    During 1996, the most recent year for which ash statistics are currently available, the electrical utility industry in the United States generated approximately 53.5 million metric tons (59.4 million tons) of coal fly ash. Until 1996, the amount of fly ash produced annually had remained roughly the same since 1977, ranging from 42.9 to 49.7 million metric tons (47.2 to 54.8 million tons).(2)

    After the Clinton Gore Administration coal fired electricity has increased, as a direct result of Al Gore preventing more nuclear power. In terms of product coal is nuclear power’s only competition. Approximately 100 coal fired plants at about 1000 megawatts each have been built since Al Gore was VP. Somebody tell me how much fly ash that is?

  10. Tim Bond
    Posted March 25, 2009 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    My apologies for the typos. I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to self-editing. By the way, my reactions are intended for the original post, not other replies, although they may apply.

  11. Posted March 29, 2009 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    The concentrations are different – but one comparison to consider is that per watt generated a coal burning plant generates roughly twice as much uranium as a nuclear plant. There are pilot efforts to extract the uranium from ash/slag heaps, concentrations verge on making this economically feasible.

  12. Tim Bond
    Posted March 31, 2009 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Define “verge” please, because Fast Neutron Reactors might qualify better under the definition. What is astonishing from the outset, is that we would argue for any sequestration in the context of burning MORE coal versus burning fuel rods in negatively pressurized fully contained reactor vessels which have never failed in this country, ever. I mean lets be honest. It’s great to work to limit and reduce the massive pollution being pumped out by the ton into our atmosphere and into our ground water by the coal burning power plants all over the world. It really is smart and admirable to do that. However, when we speak about NEW power plants, which is what this world needs now and well into the future; why on this green-turning black earth would we even entertain the burning of coal before safe, clean, green, abundant nuclear power? With the potential of Fast Neutron Reactors and other breeder types, on the “verge” nuclear fuel has a serious potential to be a real “renewable” source. Setting ore alone as a resource, uranium is found in the earth’s crust, in our ocean water. After that Thorium is abundant as well. But once a breeder is successful, it produces fuel so we don’t have to tap all these other natural sources nuclear fuel.

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  1. Posted January 2, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    [...] written a piece on how the Scientific American piece talking about fly ash radioactivity has an utterly BS headline. In the interests of disclosure – I’ve used the SciAm piece myself, but did not mention the [...]

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