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Coal-Fired Power Plant Emissions

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This page describes the radioactive material emitted from coal-fired power plants.

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Approximately 52% of the United States’ electricity is generated using coal as fuel. Coal is abundant and relatively inexpensive, but it also contains a large number of impurities.

Coal contains trace quantities of the naturally-occurring radionuclides uranium and thorium, as well as their radioactive decay products, and potassium-40. When coal is burned, minerals, including most of the radionuclides, do not burn and concentrate in the ash.

While most of the ash is captured, tiny solid particles known as "fly ash," including some radionuclides, escape from the boiler into the atmosphere. Current regulations focus on using control technology to reduce the amount of fly ash that escapes including most radioactive particles, and on proper disposal of the fly ash.

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Who is protecting you

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

EPA develops standards under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act; Safe Drinking Water Act; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act for coal-fired power plants. EPA has primary responsibility for setting federal radiation standards for exposure to naturally-occurring radioactive materials.

The States

Each state has one or more programs to address radiation protection, including naturally-occurring radioactive materials. Most states also control public exposure to radioactive materials through programs implementing the federal Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other environmental laws under authority delegated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)

DOE provides grants for research and studies on coal-fired plants and on clean coal technologies.

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What you can do to protect yourself

Radioactive and non-radioactive emissions from coal-fired power plants most strongly affect those living and working near the plant. The hazards associated with radioactive emissions are similar to those of other pollutants.

Steps taken to reduce exposure to non-radioactive air pollutants also will reduce exposure to radioactive pollutants. On days when the Air Quality Index (AQI) indicates dangerous or higher than average concentrations of air pollutants, follow recommendations made by local health officials, such as staying indoors. To find the AQI for your area, check the government's AirNow website.

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The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act
August 2008. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This summary covers some of the important provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act and may help you understand what is in the law and how it may affect you.
Toxic Substances from Coal Combustion -- A Comprehensive Assessment[about pdf format] exit EPA
October 1996. U.S. Department of Energy: Pittsburgh Energy Technology Center, Morgantown Energy Technology Center
This technical report provides research results on developing a model to measure air emissions specifically from coal-fired power plants.
AIRNow: Local Air Quality Conditions and Forecasts
Cross-Agency U.S. Government Website
This website provides information about air quality and public health.
Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger
February 2008. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, UT Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy
This article discusses the radioactive pollution associated with the burning of coal.
Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) exit EPA
March 2009. World Nuclear Association
This document discusses coal combustion and other naturally-occurring radioactive materials and potential impacts to public health.

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