Friday, 27 September 2013

Gas from US fracking increases radioactive pollution in Europe

It’s true and the logic goes like this.

In the USA gas obtained by fracking schist, together with an increase in energy from renewables, has reduced wholesale gas prices per unit of thermal energy to less than the formerly much cheaper coal.  This has in turn lowered coal prices and stimulated US coal exports.

Gas prices in Europe have increased as a result of the Libyan conflict, and after Fukushima, the Japanese decision to shut down its nuclear power stations and rely on imported gas.

These market adjustments have coincided with a dramatic drop in the cost of European carbon credits since 2008 due to the recession.  So it’s much cheaper to burn an inefficient fuel like coal, and produce more carbon dioxide, than it was earlier this century.

There is therefore now an economic incentive to burn coal instead of gas in Europe.

Photo credit: Reuters/Staff Photographer (Southern Company’s Plant Bowen in Cartersville, Georgia, one of the biggest coal-fired plants in the United States)

But each year a typical coal fired power station discharges to the environment 100 times as much radioactivity as a nuclear power plant emits.  This radioactivity comes from the uranium, thorium and other radioactive decay products naturally present in coal, which is discharged as ash and particulates.  Coal fired power stations, unlike nuclear, are not subject to the controls on radioactive emissions which make building and operating nuclear power stations expensive.

This comprehensive and well researched article by Alex Gabbard from ORNL written in 1993 gives the details.  It also points out that ash from coal is a source of fissionable fuels and fertile materials, which is likely to be overlooked by authorities attempting to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Additionally he calculates that, both in the US and globally, the waste ash from burning coal contains far more potential nuclear fuels than the entire nuclear industry consumes each year!

So thanks to fracking in the US, and market forces, Europeans are being exposed to more radiation than before.  


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