Coal and Nuclear Wastes--Both Potential Contributors to Environmental and Health Problems

EMD-81-132: Published: Sep 21, 1981. Publicly Released: Sep 21, 1981.

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GAO was asked to compare the waste products from the coal and nuclear fuel cycles. The purpose of the report was to provide a perspective on both coal and nuclear wastes by presenting information on: (1) the amounts and types of wastes being generated at each step of the coal and nuclear fuel cycle, and (2) the environmental and health impact associated with these wastes.

GAO relied primarily on existing literature supplemented by interviews with officials of the appropriate federal agencies. Overall, the literature confirmed that wastes produced by both fuel cycles present a potential for significant environmental and health hazards. Since coal and nuclear wastes present different types of hazards and the information available on these wastes is not comparable, GAO did not believe that it was possible to determine if either waste type is more of a hazard than the other. Nonetheless, several comparisons of the waste amounts, potential hazards, and past environmental and health effects resulting from each respective fuel cycle can be made that provide a perspective on the individual hazards of each waste type. In short, GAO found that: (1) the coal fuel cycle produces significantly more wastes in volume than the nuclear fuel cycle; (2) coal wastes are continually released in the environment, but the resulting health effects are not fully understood; (3) nuclear wastes are significantly more toxic and radioactive than coal wastes and could pose more of a potential hazard to the environment and public health in the event of an accident; (4) nuclear wastes have been more tightly controlled and regulated than coal wastes and, therefore, have resulted in less environmental damage; and (5) most of the hazards from both coal and nuclear wastes can be lessened, or in some cases eliminated, if properly controlled and regulated.

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