A Nuclear Plant With Small Leaks Puts Less Radioactive Material Into the Human Environment Than Drilling for Natural Gas
While there has been a tremendous level of attention paid to the small leaks of tritiated water discovered at some US nuclear power plants, a much larger magnitude source of radioactive material has been largely ignored in public discourse.
Rock formations that contain fossil fuel resources also contain uranium, thorium and their decay products in concentrations that can be significantly higher than the levels that raise concerns regarding tritium. When companies seeking to extract oil or natural gas drill into those formations, a large quantity of material (US total is about 260,000 metric tons per year) is pulverized by the drill bits and brought to the surface, releasing isotopes that include Rn-220, Rn-222, Ra-226, Pb-210, Ra-228, and Th-228.
Though these isotopes are part of the natural rock formations, like the oil and natural gas that is the target of the extraction effort, the drilling process frees them from their sealed, underground condition and puts them into the human environment where they have the potential for increasing exposures. There is a term for naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) and one for Technologically-Enhanced, Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM). Internationally, the second one is often referred to as Technologically Enhanced Natural Radiation (TENR). (I think that the international term was coined by people who did not like the warmer, fuzzier acronym of “NORM” as in “normal”.)
Under most conditions, the exposure levels are not something that should concern anyone, but it is not uncommon for workers in some oil and gas extraction efforts to be routinely exposed to enough radioactive material to increase their annual exposure by .03-.5 mSv (3-50 mrem) if they are doing maintenance work on pipes and valves associated with drilling and by 0.3 to 7 mSv (30-700 mrem) for workers involved in recycling oilfield drilling equipment. (Source: Radiological Impact On Man And The Environment From The Oil And Gas Industry by F. Steinhausler, Radiation Safety Problems in the Caspian Region, 129-134 2004. Kluwer Academic Publishers.)
There is a current court case in which employees at a facility owned by ExxonMobil are charging that they were not informed that they were working with radioactive material and thus were not trained on the precautions that radiation workers should take to minimize exposures. They claim to be worried that they might develop cancer as a result of the exposure, though none of the claimants currently have the disease.
The concentration of radioactive isotopes that can be released by drilling activities will vary depending on the composition of the formation; some locations have produced little radioactive material while others have had much higher doses because of the high concentration of uranium in the drilled rock. The Marcellus Shale formation will most likely be at the high end of the spectrum; that kind of shale contains enough uranium that it is possible to profitably mine for that material if the world market price for uranium is high enough.
Not only is there a certain amount of increased exposure to oil field workers and those who handle used equipment, but some of the isotopes listed are gaseous and will mix with the extracted gas. When that happens, the gas will carry those isotopes all the way to the point of use. The gases, like radon, will not oxidize in the burning process, but they will be released into the environment – which might be inside homes if the end use of the gas is for a stove.
My intent here is certainly not to scare anyone; the levels of exposure are low enough that moderate protective measures can keep human doses well under the range that would cause health impacts. As ExxonMobil’s attorney has stated with regard to the worker lawsuits:
“The real level of exposure was far less that what would increase the risk of cancer,” he said. “There is no increased risk of developing cancer.”
“They don’t have an injury,” Woolf said about the Plaintiffs. “You cannot award damages on speculation.”
“Did these men have a right to be angry at Exxon?” Woolf asked. “You bet. Did they suffer any damages that they are seeking to recover in this case? Absolutely not.”
My intent, instead, is to try to generate some rational conversation about the decisions surrounding the construction of new nuclear power plants and the continued operation of existing plants like Vermont Yankee, Indian Point and Oyster Creek that have been accused of being potentially hazardous merely because it is possible to detect a moderate amount of tritium on the plant site that appears likely to have come from degraded or cracked piping systems.
Shutting down those plants will increase the demand for natural gas, and that increased demand might be supplied by increased drilling activity in tight gas formations like the Marcellus Shale. Though nuclear plants certainly contain far more radioactive material than natural gas or coal plants do, the real question for those who are honestly concerned about radioactive exposures is how much does each form of energy RELEASE to the environment where it might cause additional exposure to humans and other living creatures.
Nuclear plant operators work very hard to keep radioactive material under tight control – though they are not perfect, the record is very good. In contrast, oil and gas operators often do not even bother to keep records of the material that they handle or release to the environment.
Rational decision making processes would compare the actual or potential doses from small leaks of tritiated water from systems that have nothing to do with reactor plant safety against the actual or potential doses from thousands of tons of natural gas well drilling wastes, oil field service equipment and radon contained in the distributed natural gas.
If radiation exposure to the general public is the primary concern, natural gas has a higher measured risk than nuclear power plants with small tritium leaks. It also produces a lot more CO2, CO and NOx, but that has always been obvious. I am fairly certain that few people know much about the radiation exposures that are a routine part of using extracted fossil gas.
Here is a quote from that paper I referenced earlier that might provide some explanation for why the radiation implications of oil and gas production are not well publicized:
It is emphasized that in many countries the oil and gas industry represents a powerful concentration of capital and is frequently one of the main providers of a large number of jobs. Therefore this industry is able to exert also significant lobbying power at the political level. For example, in Brazil until recently a single company had the monopoly to extract oil in all of Brazil, making it the largest Brazilian commercial and industrial enterprise. Such a concentration of power can pose a significant hurdle in enforcing the implementation of any TENR-relevant legislation, as in the case of Brazil. The situation is still worse in many other countries with large oil
and gas extraction industries, which have not even yet finished their internal discussion on how to adopt a common regulatory structure with regard to TENR. This is the current situation for: Argentina, Azerbaijan, Australia, Bolivia, China, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.
(Note: I would add the United States and Canada to that list of countries that do not have a common regulatory structure that treats TENR in a manner even remotely similar to isotopes associated more closely with nuclear energy production.).
It’s about time to start going on the offensive with this. Between coal and gas we can certainly show that nuclear energy is the least source of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) of the three.
I know there has been some reticence to go this path, as it seems to lend credence to the fears that low-level exposure is dangerous, but we have reached the point where that factor is already out of control. More importantly, nuclear power plants, can reduce discharges of radioisotopes to any arbitrary level, since it has been held to this standard for so long, whereas coal and gas would need to spend huge amounts on money to get their NORM discharges under control.
If their lawyers are going to come out with the defense that there is no danger, we can leverage that in our own case, or at the very least we can push back hard on the issue, and keep it in the public eye. Ether way we have more to gain than lose ratcheting things up in this debate and taking the fight to them.
DV82XL – Agreed. I guess the difference between me and many others in the “nuclear” industry is that I have no ties or divisions that want to protect coal or gas investments.
As I tried to carefully state in the post – I am not trying to spread fear, but if you are afraid of radioactive material and do not understand where the real danger levels are, then you need to understand the levels associated with coal, oil and gas.
There are other more dangerous by-products of those energy sources as well, but they are certainly not isolated from low-level radiation worries.
Again Rod misses the big picture. We are building new nukes because all sectors of the energy industry are subject to silly lawsuits. The old fashioned way of getting rich in America is suing someone. Sure it used to be hard work.
Environmental activist like circular firing squads, they shoot at nukes but end up hitting something else. Class law is very well settled for the nuclear industry so not it has lower risk to interruption by the courts. To win in court, the nuclear industry must do a good job. That takes hard work.
Part of operating a nuke is educating the public around the power plant so they know it is a good neighbor.
Rod thinks running around and pointing a finger at others who are not perfect either. However, the case against ExxonMobil may not be silly.
@Kit P –
What are you trying to say – that it is unseemly in a competitive industry to point out the flaws in your competition?
Nuclear is not perfect, but there are rational ways to measure and compare its characteristics with those of other energy supply choices.
I strongly disagree with your statement that “We are building new nukes because all sectors of the energy industry are subject to silly lawsuits.” The reality is that we are building new nuclear power plants because they are superior to other sources of power in measurable ways.
They use 20 tons of fuel to run for 18 months (and that is with a highly inefficient fuel cycle that takes the rods out when they still contain 95% of their potential energy.)
They use fuel that costs – with that same inefficient use of initial raw material – just 50 cents per million BTU (about 0.47 cents per kilowatt-hour)
They do not produce any gaseous emission products at all.
They do not pile up huge quantities of ash or require the use of slurry ponds.
They do not need to be located near existing sources of coal, oil or gas or near infrastructures that can handle the routine delivery of tens of thousands of tons of material every single day.
I am sure that others can add to that list of natural advantages of nuclear fission over all other competitors that supply reliable power.
I think the real reason that there is a growing momentum for a second Atomic Age is that you can fool some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never fool all of the people all of the time. Our time of being fooled is over.
Rod, Among my father’s other accomplishments was his pioneering research on radon in natural gas. I have called attention to this research in a number of posts on Nuclear Green. Among my father’s more interesting contentions was that if you assume the linear no-threshold hypothesis, then you must conclude that household natural gas use causes 10,000 radiation related deaths a year in the United States.
According to the physics department at Idaho State University, household natural gas exposes people to 9 millirem a year. That’s about 900 times greater exposure than the estimated exposure you would get living next to a nuclear plant–an exposure so tiny it’s difficult to measure.
But the anti-nuclear power crowd has embraced natural gas. I wonder if the Sierra Club and other gas-lovers know how dirty, how polluting the extraction process actually is.
The nuclear power industry should go on offense concerning low level ionizing radiation. Let
I don’t see the need to be particularly careful. The public needs frank discussion of the dangers of radioactivity.
The public has accepted a dramatic increase in exposure to ionizing radiation from medical imaging, to the point where this exposure now exceeds the total average background, because they were told by people they trust that the benefits were greater than the risks. The voices warning women to risk death from breast cancer rather than submit to mammography, for instance, were marginalized. When it came to nuclear power, because the dangers of fossil fuel use have not been generally appreciated and even now have yet to dawn on enough people to allow Congressional action, voices that should have been marginalized were instead magnified.
We will need nuclear power to allow civilization to have a chance to cope with the disaster that fossil fuel use has proven to be, and it is far past time to have it out with “leaders” who refuse to face facts. The confusion and fear about radiation will have to be thrashed out.
So, if we find that the Sierra Club, the largest and most influential environmental organization in the world, is promoting “fracking” uranium ore deposits to enable industry to extract even more planet killing fossil fuels, I think we can point out that the levels of radiation they are blithely dumping into public waterways and the homes of gas users dwarf what the public is exposed to as a result of the entire activities of the nuclear power industry and ask them to explain themselves.
The industry the Sierra Club is in bed with has defined the deposit as a natural gas deposit which all pretend gives the industry a free pass on radiation, because at senior levels they actually understand that the order of magnitude less radiation issue they’ve been flogging nuclear with all this time is bogus. This free pass exempts “fracked” gas from the preposterous radiation regulations the Sierra Club and many others have insisted on over the years in their effort to drive nuclear power out of existence by raising its cost of production.
We should have no doubt that the senior Sierra Club leadership believes nuclear power must be phased out completely. Their written policy opposes new construction (as of 1974), phased closure of all existing reactors (as of 1979), zero experience in the nuclear industry as a pre-requisite to be on the NRC (1980), piling on regulation on top of regulation on only anything that can be called commercial radioactive materials (1980), no funding of fast reactor research (1986), and no funding of fusion research (1986). Michael Brune is taking over as their new leader. His “Coming Clean” (2008) book is full of the solar wind new grid line. The no nukes policy is so firm in his mind he only mentions nuclear a few times in passing in this book. It isn’t part of any solution he sees. Many in the environment movement believe the same things. Al Gore’s op-ed yesterday in the NYTimes cranks out the identical line.
The Sierra Club calls climate change “the greatest environmental challenge of today”. Their first adopted written policy on what they then called “the excessive greenhouse effect” was created in 1988. Their nuclear thinking predates their thinking on climate and needs to be reconsidered.
Finally, fossil fuels actually have some good news, given the hormesis effect 😉
Re: beneficial effects of radiation.
Why did the BEIR VII authors say, after discussing the three competing theories, i.e.the “linear no threshold”, the “its even worse at low doses than LNT suggests”, and the “low doses of radiation may even be beneficial”, that “the preponderance of information indicates that there will be some risk, even at low doses, although the risk is small”?
I feel it is not wise, or useful to dispute such an august committee. To do so helps legitimize those who want to cherry pick science any way they feel like. You say radiation is beneficial, therefore we should ignore the NAS BEIR VII. As soon as you do that, you legitimize the other pole in the debate, i.e. radiation is even more harmful than data indicates at low doses.
It isn’t necessary to argue that radiation is beneficial to argue that radiation coming from the nuclear industry has been blown out of proportion. No matter how harmful low doses of radiation are, if the nuclear industry contributes orders of magnitude less than commonly accepted things a debate can be won using just that information, if opinion makers and leaders realize they’ve made a mistake and change their minds.
“I feel it is not wise, or useful to dispute such an august committee.” Is an Argumentum ad Verecundiam (appeal to authority)
Appeal to authority is a fallacy of defective induction, where it is argued that a statement is correct because the statement is made by a person or source that is commonly regarded as authoritative. It is a fallacy because the truth or falsity of the claim is not necessarily related to the qualities of the claimant(s), and because the premises can be true, and the conclusion false (an authoritative claim can turn out to be false).
Could the same radioacitve material problem apply to the drilling of geothermal wells?
Duh, I should have read the EPA TENORM page first: http://www.epa.gov/radiation/tenorm/geothermal.html
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