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.