There’s radiation all around us. And in some strange places. We’ll look, today on Engineering Works!
First, a question: would you rather live next door to a coal-fired power plant or a nuclear-powered one? You’d probably choose the coal plant. All that radiation from the nuclear plant, right?
Well, if you’re worried about radiation, either place is probably okay. Your risk of health problems in any year from nuclear power plant radiation is tiny. About one in a billion, with a B. But here’s the kicker: the radiation health risk from coal-fired plants is actually higher. About one in 10 million. Still really small, but 100 times higher than the nuclear plant.
Here’s why: When coal comes out of the ground, it has traces of radioactive uranium and thorium in it. No problem. They’re tiny. But most of the coal disappears when it’s burned, and the fly ash that comes out of the stack contains more uranium and thorium than the original coal did. Probably 10 times more.
Of course, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than get sick from radiation from either kind of power plant. But it’s worth thinking about. We’re building a lot of power plants – both kinds. In China alone, a new coal-fired plant opens every week or two. In the United States, we’ll probably build 30 new nuclear plants over the next several decades.
Coal or nuclear, our power is about ready to be switched off. See you next time.
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