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Power Plants


Power plants are industrial facilities where electrical power is generated for distribution. The energy source used to generate electricity varies. Most power plants in the world burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Others use nuclear, solar, wind, wave, or hydroelectric power.

See also: Natural Gas Uranium Sulfur Dioxide Carbon Dioxide Mercury Methane Particulate Matter Nitrogen Oxides Ozone

What are they?

Coal-fired power plants produce electricity by burning coal in a boiler to produce steam. The steam produced, under high pressure, flows into a turbine, which spins a generator to create electricity.

Coal is the largest energy source used to generate electricity at U.S. power plants. There are approximately 1,200 coal-fired generators at 450 facilities in the United States. They generate nearly 45 percent of the country’s electricity.

Why are they a concern?

Air emissions from coal-fired power plants cause serious human health impacts. Coal-fired power plants emit 84 of the 187 hazardous air pollutants identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Several of these pollutants cause cancer, according to the National Toxicology Program.

Hazardous air pollutants released by coal-fired power plants can cause a wide range of health effects, including heart and lung diseases. Exposure to these pollutants can damage the brain, eyes, skin, and breathing passages. It can affect the kidneys, lungs, and nervous and respiratory systems. Exposure can also affect learning, memory, and behavior.

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

Coal-fired power plants are the biggest industrial sources of mercury and arsenic in the air. Mercury pollutes lakes, streams, and rivers, and builds up in fish. People who eat large amounts of fish from contaminated lakes and rivers are at the greatest risk of exposure to mercury.

Coal-fired power plants account for 81 percent of the electric power industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide. These plants also release smaller amounts of methane and nitrogen oxides.

Coal-fired power plants also emit:

People who work at or live near coal-fired power plants have the greatest health risks from power plant pollution.

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What are they?

Nuclear power plants produce electricity from nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is produced through the heat-generating fission process, in which neutrons split uranium atoms to create energy. This energy is used to make steam, which then powers generators to make electricity.

There are currently 65 nuclear power plants with 104 nuclear reactors in the United States. These plants use large amounts of water to carry heat, generate steam, and cool the nuclear reactor core. Plants are built next to a water source from which they can draw the water they need and return the water after use. The returned water is usually warm and may have some buildup of heavy metals and salts. The water is not radioactive because it never comes in contact with radioactive materials.

Why are they a concern?

An accident or failure at a nuclear power plant could result in dangerous levels of radiation that could affect the health and safety of people working at or living near the plant. Emergency planning defines two zones near a nuclear power plant. The zone within 10 miles of the plant is where it is possible that people could be harmed by direct radiation exposure, which can cause serious illness or even death. The zone within 50 miles of the plant is where radioactive materials could contaminate water supplies, food crops, and livestock.

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

Unlike fuel-burning power plants, nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, or nitrogen oxides. However, they use radioactive materials, including enriched uranium. Nuclear power plants produce spent nuclear fuel, which includes many highly radioactive byproducts of the fission process. Plants regularly have to remove and replace their spent uranium fuel. This waste remains radioactive for thousands of years and must be properly stored and isolated. They also produce low-level radioactive wastes that are sometimes found on workers’ shoe covers and clothing, rags, mops, and equipment, and in reactor water residues. To protect their health, nuclear power plant workers are monitored for radiation exposure.

People who work at or live near nuclear power plants have the greatest health risks from power plant pollution.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases
Additional Resources

Reduce your risk

  • Do you live near a power plant that burns coal or oil?
  • Do you live near a nuclear power plant?
  • Do you use well water?
  • Limit outdoor activities during times of high air pollution as reported by sources such as the EPA’s AirNow.
  • Routinely check your well water for pollution.
  • If your well water has high levels of pollution, contact your local or state health agency. Ask these agencies for information on how to reduce your exposure.  
  • If your well water contains chemical levels above EPA’s drinking water advisory levels, consider using bottled water for drinking and cooking. You can also use an activated carbon filtration system or reverse osmosis system.
  • If you live near a nuclear power plant:
    • The risk of exposure to radiation is low.
    • The farther away you are from the source, the safer you will be.
    • Plastic sheeting and duct tape can be used to create airtight barriers over all doors, windows, and chimneys to block air pollution.
    • Maintain a disaster kit and disaster plan in the unlikely event of a radiation leak.
    • Consider routinely testing your home for radiation levels.
  • Children should avoid playing near power plants.
  • Children with asthma should limit their outdoor activities when air pollution levels are high.
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