What Fukushima can teach us about coal pollution

Earlier this week, I told you about a new study tracking radioactive fallout from the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

It started with a team of researchers in California, who had been monitoring radioactive sulfur in the atmosphere since 2009. Last spring, after an earthquake and tsunami critically damaged several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, those researchers watched the levels of radioactive sulfur skyrocket, relatively speaking. The amounts of radioactive sulfur that reached the California coast weren't high enough to be a threat to humans, but they made a big impact on extremely sensitive monitoring equipment.

Using that data, the researchers were able to figure out where the radioactive sulfur came from and back-calculate how much would have been produced at the site of the disaster—information that can tell us something about how dangerous the disaster really was to people living nearby.

But these researchers weren't the first to collect radioactive isotopes from Fukushima on American shores. And they weren't the first to offer up improved estimations of how much radiation leaked from the damaged power plant in the early days of the disaster. I thought this study was interesting. But, like a lot of you, I was left wondering why it was important.

Then yesterday, I interviewed Antra Priyadarshi, the lead author on the peer-reviewed paper that was published about this study. And I realized I'd gotten the story all wrong. This paper is about radioactive sulfur from the Fukushima disaster. But it isn't about the Fukushima disaster. It's not even about nuclear power. Not really.

In reality, this is a paper about coal. And it's important because of what it can tell us about the sort of air pollution that is much more mundane—and more deadly—than the fallout from a single nuclear disaster.

To get this, you first have to understand who the researchers are and why they've been monitoring radioactive sulfur for so long. It has nothing to do with nuclear power or nuclear weapons.

Antra Priyadarshi is a postdoc—a scientist who has recently earned their Ph.D., but is doing research under the guidance of another, older scientist. You can think of it like an apprenticeship program, in a way. Priyadarshi works in the lab of Mark Thiemens, an atmospheric scientist. The Thiemens Lab is interested in questions of climate systems and the chemical makeup of the atmosphere. In particular, they're interested in ozone.

Ozone is a molecule of three oxygen atoms bound together, and it's the same stuff that makes up the protective ozone layer around there Earth. Way off in the upper atmosphere, ozone is a Good Thing. But context matters. When ozone ends up on our level, where humans can breathe it in, it becomes a problem. That's because ozone can, essentially, give the lining of your lungs a sunburn. The more ozone you inhale, the more damage to your cardiovascular system.

There's a couple of reasons ozone and people come into contact. One is pollution: On hot days, chemicals from car and factory exhaust can turn into ground-level ozone. But ozone from the upper atmosphere can also get transported down to our level naturally. One of the key things the Thiemens Lab is trying to understand is how those natural movements work, why they happen, and what that means for the way pollution-based ozone gets transported from exhaust-rich urban areas to other parts of the world.

This is where the radioactive sulfur comes in, because there's a natural source of that, as well.

In the upper atmosphere, where the naturally occurring ozone is formed, high-energy particles from cosmic rays react with argon to form radioactive sulfur. When air from high altitudes intrudes on our atmospheric level, it brings both ozone and radioactive sulfur along for the ride. Antra Priyadarshi has been monitoring radioactive sulfur both because of the role those isotopes play in climate—there's some evidence that they can serve as points for clouds to condense around and produce raindrops—and because of what the movement of sulfur can tell her about the movement of ozone.

So that explains why Priyadarshi and her colleagues were out there monitoring radioactive sulfur to begin with. But why is this paper important? What does it add to her research?

For that, you have to look to China, and a different form of sulfur.

The Smell of Success

When we burn coal, one of the things that goes up in smoke is sulfur dioxide. It's not radioactive, but it is dangerous. Sulfur dioxide, like ozone, damages human respiratory and cardiovascular systems. It's a key ingredient in acid rain, which harms crops and other plants, and damages buildings. And it's also a major player in producing particulate matter—tiny grains that get inside your lungs and cause long-term damage.

Particulate matter is also an important factor in climate change. That's because, while particulates are very bad for human health, they also play a role in cooling down the planet. Basically, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap heat and particulate matter in the atmosphere prevents heat from the sun from getting in. These two forces work against each other, even though, in man-made terms, they come from the same place—fossil fuel emissions.

When we talk about cleaning up emissions, we're usually talking about reducing the amount of sulfur and particulates produced, but not the amount of greenhouse gases. So, ironically, cleaner tailpipes and smokestacks save lives in the short term, but contribute to a rising global temperature in the long term.

That's why people are watching China. Western countries started scrubbing sulfur out of their emissions decades ago. Our emissions aren't sulfur-free, but they're a lot cleaner than they used to be. China, on the other hand, is rapidly ramping up the amount of coal it burns, and the emissions aren't being cleaned up. It's the world's largest sulfur dioxide polluter today. And scientists are curious about how that sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere is masking the effects of greenhouse gases. When China starts cleaning up its smokestacks, what will happen to the global temperature? How does sulfur dioxide from China affect the rest of the world?

That second question has been very difficult to answer. Think of all the coal that gets burnt everywhere, every day. In order to know something about how sulfur dioxide travels, you have to be able to separate the sulfur dioxide from one factory, or one power plant, and trace it as it moves through the atmosphere. That's like listening to five symphonies playing at once and trying to pick out the work of a single flautist.

Until now.

This is why a study of radioactive sulfur from Fukushima matters. That disaster produced so much radioactive sulfur that it was obvious when the plume from Fukushima reached the shores of California. This signal was loud enough to stand out from the noise. The radioactive sulfur from Fukushima isn't exactly the same thing as the sulfur dioxide from Chinese power plants, but it is close enough that it can serve as a marker. It's a model that can tell scientists some important things about how sulfur travels through the atmosphere and how it crosses great distances, like the Pacific Ocean.

"There are lots of sources of sulfur pollution and a lot of uncertainty in the models," Antra Priyadarshi said. "But this is a case when we can know better how much radioactive sulfur was produced at the source, and how much arrived, and you can neglect the natural background signal. That gives you a better estimation of how much sulfur could be transported over the Pacific."

Photo by Dawn Erb. Used with permission.


  1. I am given to understand that, if coal fired plants were under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy, and subjected to the same regulations that govern emissions from nuclear power plants, they would be shut down in an instant for releasing dangerous amounts of radioactive particles into the environment.

  2. As an aside, that image is of the power plant in Moss Landing, California which runs on natural gas.  Lovely photo though, in it’s own way…

      1. It is nice to see an article about power plant emissions which doesn’t use a stock image/video of steam coming out of a cooling tower to illustrate teh poollooshuns. For the non engineers – the clouds of white stuff coming out of the big fat chimneys you see at a powerplant is exactly as dangerous at the emissions from your kettle. It’s the clear stuff you can’t see coming out of the small, thin, high chimneys where all the nasties are hiding.

    1. Moss Landing Units 6 & 7 (the ones using the tall stacks) are actually dual-fired capable (oil and nat. gas). They’re hardly ever run – capacity factors for the two units are 6-10%.  Its no surprise given how inefficient they are – especially compared to units 1 & 2.

      The confusion about it being a coal plant is understandable – natural gas plants don’t typically have such high stack heights because SO2 and PM10 emissions are low.  Coal plants and BWR nuclear plants (or is it the PWRs that use the super-high stacks, I forget) need the higher stack heights.  So its kind of odd to see gas fired plants that need such high stacks – could be because of the emissions from operating in oil-fired mode or it also could be that the emissions controls weren’t as advanced when 6&7 came online (back in the mid 60s)

  3. Interesting? Yes. Worthy of study? Absolutely.

    But particulates are such a late-stage effect of coal pollution, it’s sometimes hard for me to see why we bother tracking it that far. I mean, shouldn’t something be done at this point
    ?  Or at this point http://ilovemountains.org/ ?

    Not trying to throw out a straw man, but both Maggie’s post and Chris Tucker’s comment got me thinking abt the origins of coal pollution.

  4. If I ever get around to switching careers and becoming a super villain, my doom fortress will look EXACTLY like that. But with a big laser on top…a DOOM LASER.

  5. I started off wondering how a reactor releases sulphur, then went to, “did they notice coal plants being turned on?” and finally to, “ooooh”.

    That’s a deep bit of research that had to get through 3-5 layers of preconceptions to get to the core of it.  Thanks for the article, it cleared it up.

  6. Coal stations also emit the most radoactivity, you know because coal is radioactive, the amount they put out would have a nuke plant closed down , just another hypocricy of life.

  7. I think the real question should be “What Fukushima can teach us about the real cost of nuclear energy production and consumption?”  How many more Fukushima’s does the world let-alone Japan sustain before we ask the real question?

    1. Chernobyl was the result of the reactor being operated WAY beyond design parameters. We learned that “I wonder what will happen if I push THIS button?” should forever be a rhetorical question.

      Three Mile Island taught us that the TMI Human-Machine interface should have been designed by Apple and that the SCRAM system really should have been triply redundant. Along with equally redundant valve operation sensors.

      We learned that the Japanese were too lazy in 1970 to design against a heretofore unimaginable earthquake and tsunami. So it’s all their fault for not building a time machine back then and seeing what might happen 40 years into the future.(The preceeding was snark, mostly, for all those who have had their sense of humor surgically removed.)

      I note that for every Viewing With Alarm at Fukushima, there is thundering silence about all the other Japanese nuclear plants that went into cold shutdown, as planned, in the aftermath of the earthquake.

      1. The case against nuclear power isn’t that it can’t be done right in theory.  It certainly can be done right in theory.  The case against it is that it can’t be done in practice.

        The first problem, which is illustrated by Fukushima, is that the modes of catastrophic failure are REALLY catastrophic.  As you point out, plants can be designed to minimize the risk of catastrophic failure.  Unfortunately, you can’t design to eliminate the risk of catastrophic failure.  Furthermore, you can’t really predict the probability of catastrophic failure because you simply don’t know how likely something like the tsunami (or something even worse) actually is.

        The sensible thing to do about this from a risk management perspective is to use energy sources whose modes of catastrophic failure are relatively benign.  For example, a concentrated solar generator wouldn’t spew millions of gallons of radioactive waste water into the environment if it failed, it would just sit there uselessly.

        The second problem is that the design, construction, operation, and retirement of these facilities are performed by fallible human beings, usually operating within the constraints imposed by an even more fallible institution — usually a profit-motivated corporation.  A profit-motivated corporation will necessarily take any shortcut that improves the bottom line throughout these processes.  Obviously, some shortcuts will hurt the bottom line by exposing the company to liability, but as long as there’s enough plausible deniability and the corporation has a good enough legal team, they will do what they can to save money.

        Since all the stuff about generating nuclear energy that is harmful to humans and the environment is necessary for generating nuclear energy, whereas the measures taken for the safety of human beings and the environment is a secondary “nice-to-have” distinct from the actual business of generating nuclear energy, it’s relatively clear what sorts of measures will be shortcut for the sake of the bottom line.

        Short version: nuclear energy would be great if it were provisioned by utterly selfless clairvoyant beings, akin to angels.  It is much too dangerous to put in the hands of human beings.

      2. After being in Japan a week before the quake, I also know that Japanese have an unholy liking for godawfully strong cigarettes in tiny bars. They’d prevent a whole lot more cancer by protesting about those.

        1. Yep. Until recently, one could smoke anywhere in Japan. There’s a nascent stop smoking movement there. Still and all, between the cold beer and panty vending machines, you’ll likely find a cigarette vending machine that’ll sell a pack of smokes to anyone with the yen.

          1. Indeed. I like the fact that smoking outside in Tokyo is restricted to dedicated street corners, but it killed my nights out in because I seriously couldn’t stand the smog in any bar we found. Watching the puffers in the Fukishima protests alternated me between ironic amusement and despair for the lack of perspective.

            I never did find one of those mythical panty vending machines. I think there’s an excellent BB article in the truth or not of them…

      3. Chris Tucker sayeth: We learned that the Japanese were too lazy in 1970 to design against a heretofore unimaginable earthquake and tsunami.  

        Au contraire, multiple sources show they HAD imagined that level of quake and tsunami. Greed, that’s all, just profits-over-people managers overruling good engineering. 

    2. Andrew – the whole point is that it’s not just nuke plants that emit nasty stuff. We need to be taking a balanced view of the costs and impacts of *any* power plant, nuke or not. Sum up the through life emissions of a dirty coal plant, and compare it to the emissions of Fukishima. Only when nuke plants are much worse can anti-nuke action be justified. Knee jerk anti nuke attitudes based on no data risk burying us in much worse doo-doo.

  8. All radiation exposure cumulatively increases your chances of getting cancer.  This is a known scientific fact, so why is the added radiation we are presently gathering from Fukushima mysteriously safe?  Answer; it isn’t.

    1. Well, yes and no.  You need to get a sense for how diluted it is.  I’m just going to make up a unit of radiation exposure called a “del” — the amount the average American gets exposed to every year.

      If your average exposure is 1 del per year and the cumulative effect of the Fukushima fallout on Americans is 10^-9 del, then your probability of cancer has not risen in any statistically significant way as a result of the Fukushima fallout.

      I’m pretty anti-nuke but let’s be realistic about this kind of thing.

      1. Great answer, Daniel. That’s exactly what I was going say. 

        If you can’t separate the risk from the background risk associated with being a human being living a modern lifestyle on planet Earth, then it’s not something to worry about. That’s not the same thing as 100% absolutely safe. But risk is not an absolute all or nothing proposition. And when my risk is so low that I don’t need to worry about it, I consider that safe. If I didn’t, I’m not sure I could manage to get out of bed in the morning. 

    2. Every time I leave my house, I’m significantly increasing my chances of being hit by a bus. So perhaps I should just stay at home then? People always polarise the concepts of “safe” and “dangerous” but that’s flawed logic, as there’s always a chasm of “neither safe nor dangerous” in-between. In the case of exposure to radiation, the chasm is huge!

    3. Sorry, but that’s not a scientific fact. Cancer risk vs. exposure is very complicated, and not well known at this point. Even if it was, it’s akin to saying that being outside cumulatively increases your risk of being hit on the head by a meteorite, so better stay indoors. Any engineering decision is a balance of risks and benefits. If the risk is small, and the benefit great (or the risks and benefits of the alternative – in this case coal – are worse), you minimise the risk but accept it. I’m no fan of nuke power (really) – but I don’t want to see possible benefits for the greater risk of global warning thrown out based on a one off incident that (correct me if I’m wrong) has killed zero people compared to tens of thousands killed and maimed by the quake and tsunami itself.

  9. I’d wondered for years whether the introduction of coal stack scrubbers, catalytic converters, etc. in the West might have played a part in producing the notorious “hockey stick” curve in that they reduced the aerosol emissions that had previously helped counteract greenhouse gas emissions.

  10. One point that I would like to make to both Maggie’s and Daniel’s points is that though I agree, look at the cumulative radiation exposure that we live with nowadays compared to pre-nuclear times just 80 years ago.  We not only are getting background radiation from the sun and cosmic sources; but terrestrial ones as well (natural) and then there are the man-made ones, be it a nuclear reactor, X-rays from dental offices, et al.  Also, though we may know something about some of their interactions, we can’t calculate all of then together.

    That said, I agree with Daniel’s first comment, that in an ideal world, nuclear is great; but we don’t live there and so, I would rather live without it (if possible) and learn to live with less power-hungry tech (how much of the power we use is actually wasted in the transformer as heat?).

    1. Anthony: The answer is “a lot” (depending of course on the tech gadget). More on that later this year as I post things related to my upcoming book on the future of energy. But, suffice to say, we waste a crap ton of energy because of poorly designed systems. 

  11. Superb article, Maggie. But one small quibble: In some ways, the most pernicious thing sulfur and particulates do is soften the near and mid-term effects of increased greenhousing. Climate is perturbed less . . . for a while, and so we’re less likely to react. But they’re relatively short-lived in the atmosphere, and when they wash out, all that CO2, methane and the like are still there. So whatever mayhem 400, or 450, or 500 will cause, for centuries or millennia, hits us then, full-force.

  12. I keep hearing how “its not a threat to human health”.
    Over and over.
    They even say it in Japan, and yet parts of Chiba prefecture are hotter than the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

    I don’t buy it.
    Maybe with radioactive sulfur, which is water soluble.
    But people in the Pacific NW inhaled a wide array of hot particles. A single hot particle of plutonium is said to cause between a 0.1% and a 1% chance of lung cancer.BB, like other media, downplays the dangers posed by nuclear power. This history of nuclear disasters is a history of such minimization and even outright lies (it “safely shut down”, for example).

    1. Thebes, 
      I’m sorry you don’t buy that the amount of radiation that reached the United States isn’t something to worry about. The scientists I’ve talked to and the evidence I’ve seen says you’re wrong. All I have to go on is evidence. Without that, you can speculate anything you want. And if you’ve decided you don’t believe scientists and evidence, then I’m not sure there’s much I can do for you. I’m not just going to speculate that the scientists and the evidence are wrong without more evidence. 

      1. Well I can say this about the “scientists” whose livelyhood depends upon their “correct” answers. They said there was NO increase in radiation in Northern New Mexico from the Los Alamos fires. Then they released gamma radiation data that supposedly proved this. Then three weeks later they released data about the plutonium, americium and cesium found in air filters in the very smoke they expected me to breath. It was a small amount, if you were indoors and I can’t quantify the levels other than saying I found Alpha and Beta emitters in tiny spots upon my solar panels and am damned glad I didn’t buy the initial report of NO increase. Because if there were enough plutonium to have found an increase in gamma I’d be dying of cancer and anyone who has passed a physics class dealing with plutonium and radioactive isotopes knows exactly why.

        Go on burying your head in the sand. There have been rain water levels dozens of times higher than the FDA accepts for drinking water. My community (offgrid, rural SW) largely collects rainwater for drinking. People are being thrown under the bus by the “climate change community” and their bs dream of clean nuclear power.

    2. As someone who eats healthy and takes care of himself, I have found that folks like you have created a small upswing in the “health nut” community. Bravo, comrade! Now that 9/11 conspiracy nonsense is getting to be played out, Fukushima seems to be good news if you are a paranoid nut.

      For example, thanks to Fukushima loons not only have I had to hear mini lectures telling me what I should eat or not, but I have also seen some bizarre hippie racism against seaweed and foods that are even remotely Asian: “You can’t trust where they come from!” Yup geniuses, you cannot trust that seaweed harvested in the U.S. or bok choy grown on U.S. soil is somehow not connected to a disaster that happened nowhere near it.

    3. A single hot particle of plutonium is said to cause between a 0.1% and a 1% chance of lung cancer.

      I live in Boston. I’m far more likely to get run over by some drunken Townie or DotRat, than from ANY environmental toxin.

      Someone in San Francisco is more likely to be murdered by a BART transit cop than die from Fukushima fallout.

      Someone in Los Angeles? Earthquake, wildfire, landslide, traffic accident, O.D. outside the Viper Room. (Note to River Phoenix: Red meat isn’t dangerous. Speedballs, now they’ll fucking kill you!).

      1% chance of lung cancer from a particle of Pu? That’s better odds than my Type 2 diabetes!

      Google “UPPU Club” and get back to me.


  13. Maggie, please refrain from replying to Thebes.  Your last post to him/her was so well executed, I have memorized it for future use. 
    Thebes:  you don’t understand risk.  The more you post, the less credible you become. 

  14. Excellent posting. China’s pollution is a very real threat to all of us. That it ties into a possible holesolution in global warming is a bonus. There is much to learn and the sooner we figure it out the better. 

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