How much uranium and thorium comes from burning coal?

Coal contains a surprising level of radioactive materials like uranium and thorium. While it is usually in trace amounts, the sheer volume of coal burned in the world exposes these dangerous materials to the human ecosystem.

To help make this easier to understand, let’s consider at 1,000,000 kilowatt hours of electricity — this is enough to power 80 average American homes for a year. The coal required to generate this much electricity contains a surprising 109 pounds of uranium and thorium. Even more notably, after the coal is burned and the electricity is delivered, these radioactive materials are 10x more concentrated in the coal ash that is left over. Nearly all of this coal ash is stored in unlined ponds scattered across the US, meaning that many of these toxic materials are likely leaching into the ground and possibly water tables.

To download the spreadsheet, click on the right-hand bottom of the embedded Excel document.

This analysis is referenced in Straight facts on the environmental impact of coal: CO2, pollution, land, and water.

Code: m107 kWhCoalUr math xbMath