why fossil fuels are even more radioactive than nuclear reactors

If you start studying the waste from gas and oil wells, and measure the emissions from coal ash, the fossil fuel industry is more dangerous than any nuclear plant.
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If you want to make a lot of environmental activists advocating for renewable energy mad, try to bring up the idea of using nuclear power as a stopgap and say that we will more than likely need to follow that path in the near future. They’ll tell you that nuclear power plants are just as bad as fossil fuels if not worse, and they produce nuclear waste with which we still don’t quite know how to deal safely. But while it’s true that nuclear power does require us to get a good handle on radioactive waste, one of the things missing from the conversation about whether it’s better to go nuclear or keep fossil fuels is the sheer amount of radioactivity to which we’re being quietly exposed by the fossil fuel industry.

It’s not just that coal ash from power plants is every bit as bad or worse than from a nuclear power plant, and the more coal plants we have going, the more radiation we’re belching into the skies. Scientists are growing more and more concerned about waste from fracking and oil wells tainted with a whole spectrum of radon isotopes present in concentrations hundreds, if not thousands of times higher than considered safe. Even worse, this toxic, radioactive waste has been pumped into waterways and topsoil for decades, as well as spread on roads to help clear ice and snow. Regulations for handling it exist, but only in the form of a loose patchwork of local and state rules often giving industry a wide berth and plenty of discretion.

According to companies extracting fossil fuels, since the radon is normally occurring and its concentration in the ground is similar to radiation from bananas, we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about it. However, the radioactive decay of potassium in bananas is nothing like the emissions of radon gas and dust. Potassium-40 has a half-life of 1.2 billion years compared to radon’s 3.8 days. Now, this doesn’t mean it will take the potassium-40 over 1.2 billion years to emit half its radiation, just that it will take that long for it to emit enough energy for half of its mass to decay into fairly stable isotopes of calcium. Radon, on the other hand, will see half its mass turn into similarly dangerous polonium, then lead in half a week.

This is why you can leave bananas on a counter or eat them without a care in the world — well, unless you plan on consuming 10 million of them in one sitting but the hyperkalemia from the sheer amount of potassium would get you long the radiation does — but need to be worried if you find a radon leak in your basement. Radon bombards you with more particles, hits you with those particles faster, has more dangerous byproducts, and is linked to bone and lung cancers. So, when lobbyists for oil and gas companies pretend otherwise, they’re basically saying that being hit by a rock ejected from a well is just as harmless as being short by a nerf gun because the rock is naturally occurring and also contains a lot of carbon, just like the polyester of the toy dart.

It sounds absurd, yet this is very much the logic they justify to dodge safety regulations for the workers they employ and cover our streets in radioactive slurry to make money off selling the toxic waste they would otherwise have to pay to decontaminate and dispose of safely. And on top of this insult to injury, taxpayers around the world are asked to subsidize and industry that poisons the air and water and irradiates our homes to the tune of $5.2 trillion per year. If we used nuclear power instead of more oil and gas wells, the reactors’ waste products would be strictly tracked and tightly contained while workers would be closely monitored for exposure to radiation and other potentially hazardous materials.

Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that we’re going to need fossil fuels even if we decided to transition to all nuclear and renewables, and even after that for certain important plastics. Knowing how to play the political heartstrings, fossil fuel lobbyists and executives will cry and play victim, portraying those who understand the damage their industry causes as ignorant or malicious hypocrites attacking hardworking men and women. They’re lying, of course. Very few extremists are going out of their way to demonize those trying to pay their bills and put food on the table by working in the fossil fuel industry. We understand that they need a job and that’s their best way to make a living right now.

But do those polluting and poisoning both our environment and their employees, and declare jihads against even the most reasonable regulations really deserve to be let off the hook? Are we as a civilization required to put their profit and personal wealth before our own lives and health, as well as the long-term health of future generations and shower them in money to keep on destroying and irradiating the environment, their employees, and their customers? And do we need to pretend that there are no profits to be made in providing renewable and clean energy because these companies would have to spend money for a transition while they’d rather buy another house or yacht with that cash instead?

# science // environment / fossil fuels / radiation


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