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March 15, 2011 5:13 PM   Subscribe

Do natural gas and oil fired power plants release radiation in the form of radium, or otherwise? How much radiation per MW would be released by a typical plant? Would the release of such elements be reduced by cogeneration of steam?

Over the past few days, as Metafilter has been discussing the pros and cons of nuclear energy, people have brought up the fact that coal fired energy plants produce a significant amount of radiation. I'm wondering if the same is true of oil and natural gas fired plants.

To be clear: I'm not asking because I'm scared in any way. I'm just curious. And wondering if I missed out on the chance to do an awesome science project in high school, since I lived at the foot of a power plant.

(I can just picture the discussion now: "Mom, dad, I was wondering if you could up my allowance for a few weeks, so I can buy some radiation detection equipment and hang out at the ConEd plant....")
posted by evidenceofabsence to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The radiation from coal comes from the (small amounts) of radioactive isotopes present in the coal, some of which end up in the fly ash. Some additional info here
Natural gas and oil have a lot fewer (or none) of these trace elements present in the fuel, so they don't end up in the environment when you burn them, either in a power plant or in your car.
posted by defcom1 at 5:42 PM on March 15, 2011

> coal fired energy plants produce a significant amount of radiation.

They produce radiation, but it's not a significant amount. The radiation is so slight, it blends into the background and affects nobody's health.
McBride and his co-authors estimated that individuals living near coal-fired installations are exposed to a maximum of 1.9 millirems of fly ash radiation yearly. To put these numbers in perspective, the average person encounters 360 millirems of annual "background radiation" from natural and man-made sources, including substances in Earth's crust, cosmic rays, residue from nuclear tests and smoke detectors. [source]
When they are operating normally, nuclear power plants release even less radiation than coal plants. It's the potential of releases during a catastrophe that's the problem. And even then, the releases are not necessarily the bigger problem. The releases so far from the Fukushima accident have been somewhat low, low enough that their toll on human health will remain a footnote against horrible ravages of the tsunami's waters. [source].
posted by gmarceau at 6:04 PM on March 15, 2011

Radiation hazard also depends on how it affects your body. Concentrated, prolong and close proximity exposure is hazardous, diffused, short and long-distance is tolerable; so, in that way, radioactive isotopes that bio-accumulate, either via physical (i.e. fine dust getting lodged deep in your lungs) or bio-chemical way (iodine accumulate in your thyroid gland, or heavy metals being used in place of calcium in your bone) are bad. The thyroid tissue under constant bombardment of radioactivity at close range will suffer irreparable damages, chest-xray for short pulse and diffused area is generally harmless. Similarly, radioactive iodine and cesium/thorium are bad because they are biologically active; radioactive radon and xenon are less bad (unless you breathe them in every day) because they are chemically inert.

Regarding your project idea, I don't think it's possible for amateur to detect this level of radioactivity. The amount you are talking about is minute; and its effect (in term of iodine, for example) take decades to show up as thyroid cancer. When you are talking about power plan emission, it's even more diffused, e.g. the effect only show up in large population study with careful control of many other factors. You won't be able to detect the difference from the normal background radiation. Usually, when radiation IS detectable, you should NOT be there.
posted by curiousZ at 6:23 PM on March 15, 2011

This may sound awful, but I'm not interested in terms of health or environmental impact (which are negligible), so much as detectability: Whether, if I took measures at ground level in a radius around the plant, and at roof levels (conveniently, there are a bunch of similarly-sized, ~130 foot buildings surrounding it), there would be any pattern of decrease as one moved away from the plant.

From what I can tell, you guys are right about it being a pretty undetectable level. Besides which, using equipment sensitive enough to detect the level of radioactivity would result in all kinds of problems with specificity and sensitivity when assessing the results.

Thanks for addressing my crackpot question, even if it means that I don't have an excuse to buy a Geiger counter, and sneak onto a bunch of rooftops. Which sounded like fun.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:41 PM on March 15, 2011

I kept thinking that your effort should be to understand more about radiation and its hazard as a physical phenomena instead of jumping on the bandwagon of anti-nuclear hysterics. Radiation is a physical phenomena, it's *every* where; not just from secret government conspiracy. The sun is the largest source of deadly "radiation" in term of UV light; X-ray came from your CRT TV and computer monitor; you get a dose of gamma ray boarding an aircraft; and there are genuine radioactive isotopes in your house right now: radon if you have an unventilated basement, americium (*) in your smoke alarm, tritium on your wristwatch. Heck, there are measurable radioactive carbons in your very cells.

I think you should strive to be THIS(**) guy instead of hanging outside of ConEd with your uncalibrated geiger counter. Yeah, it's hazardous, he didn't die, but his is an inspiring story. Remeber: The truth shall set you free.

(*) Yes, the element named after America by Glenn Seaborg, who himself has an element named after him: Seaborgium: Sg 106.

(**) David Hahn - Radioactive Boy Scout
posted by curiousZ at 7:05 PM on March 15, 2011

curiousZ, could you be a little less patronizing, please?

My question had zilch to do with nuclear power plants, and as I have stated, nothing to do with radiation as a hazard. I understand that there is background radiation, and that even combustion of cigarettes produces trace amounts of radioisotopes. Hell, I have lived with someone exposed to radioactive iodine (my dad had his thyroid irradiated to treat his Grave's disease), and have visited this guy's workshop.

This wasn't about anti-nuclear hysterics. It was about doing a science fair-type project for a few weeks, for the heck of it. Geez.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 7:19 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Evidenceofabsence, my apologies. My frustration with the state of science education in America, and the constant sensationalistic misinformation in the media relating to the 2 nuclear power plants in Japan must have shown through. There are a lot of bad information out there, and when the citizenry lacks good science education, this leads to bad public policy, causing real harm, both scientific and social. It sadden me that Berkeley, my neighboring town, where so much advances and discoveries was made during the nuclear golden age, is now a "nuclear free zone"; and America is turning its back on a technology that she has invested so much sweat and treasure to acquire.

Your effort is laudatory. Kindly ignore grumbles of old men :)
posted by curiousZ at 7:43 PM on March 15, 2011

Whether, if I took measures at ground level in a radius around the plant, and at roof levels (conveniently, there are a bunch of similarly-sized, ~130 foot buildings surrounding it), there would be any pattern of decrease as one moved away from the plant.

Anecdotally, yes; according to someone I know who used to work at a reactor, their airborne radiation alarms would sometimes go off when the wind shifted to put them downwind of a nearby coal power plant. How easy it would be for you to get ahold of an equivalently sensitive detector, I don't know. I assume the reactors' detectors were set to be as sensitive as practical.

OTOH, I'd think that the radioactive particulates in coal smoke would be scrubbed out by the same systems put in place to reduce air-quality problems— so maybe coal plants put less radioactive dust directly into the air than they used to?

But your actual question was about oil and gas. I have no special knowledge of it, but it seems to me that uranium and thorium wouldn't be very easily carried by oil or gas, unlike coal. They both tend to be found as insoluble oxides in nature.
posted by hattifattener at 12:15 AM on March 16, 2011

Gas I don't know about. Probably not all that much. But petroleum can be radioactive. There is nothing on the wikipedia article, but I swear I heard that somewhere.
posted by gjc at 5:18 AM on March 16, 2011

Gas I don't know about.

There's not much radioactivity in gas, no. Radon venting from the underground along with the gas may be a concern, but the half-life is short (3.8 days) so not much of it will reach the final consumer unless transit and distribution is pretty rapid.

But petroleum can be radioactive. There is nothing on the wikipedia article, but I swear I heard that somewhere.

Yep, it can be: like everything that comes out of the ground, it may contain traces of primordial radionuclides. Petroleum scale in particular - the deposit that forms inside pipes and such during extraction - may consist of precipitated barium sulphate, which means it will also contain radium sulphate due to its chemical similarity. The stuff accumulates over time inside the pipes, and can be a real hazard to workers, particularly those involved in repair operations.

Incidentally, the term for materials like this, where natural radioactivity is concentrated due to a technical process, is Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials or TENORM - it's a good term to google for if you are interested in the subject.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:49 PM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

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