Currently, there are three major types of power plants in the industrialized world today: coal or gas-fired, nuclear and hydroelectric. Each type has its own unique environmental issues and dangers. Asbestos is one hazard that is common to all three, however.
Asbestos has been used extensively in industry since the mid-19th century. It was valued for its heat resistant and fireproof characteristics; with the advent of electrification, it was discovered to be an excellent insulator as well. In addition, it was plentiful, easily worked, and – seemingly – economical.
This has proven to be false economy. The cost to society not only in terms of dollars, but in lives destroyed, has been enormous. Asbestos has even claimed its own – both Henry Johns, founder of Johns-Manville, and Edward Alley, founder of the W.R. Grace Co. of Libby, Montana, died from diseases caused by the very substance upon which they made their fortunes – disease like the asbestosis that killed both, or even deadlier forms of asbestos cancer, such as lung cancer or mesothelioma. According to a 2002 RAND Institute study, the cost of asbestos litigation up to that point totaled $54 billion dollars; the worst-case scenario indicated that at the time indicated that only 20% of all claimants had come forward. This means that ultimately, the financial cost of asbestos use in our society could total as much as $265 billion in the U.S. alone.
Because of heat generated and the inherent dangers of electricity, many of the mechanical components that make up a power generation plant were coated with a form of asbestos. This was likely to be asbestos-impregnated cement, or a spray-on substance once marketed as Monokote.
Where Asbestos Was Used
Asbestos insulation was used extensively throughout power plants in order to reduce fire hazards. Because so much of the machinery contained asbestos, it was a small matter for fibers to get into the air inside the structures. These included boilers, turbines and generators.
In addition, many of the gaskets used in sealing valves, pumps and pipe fittings also contained asbestos. In order to fit these gaskets properly, plant maintenance workers were obliged to cut, trim and file the components. This had the effect of releasing asbestos fibers into the air. A typical power generation plant may literally have miles of such pipes and conduits.
Besides gaskets and fire barriers, asbestos was used in flooring, as well as in paints and plumbing fixtures. Any and all power plants constructed before the 1970s are likely to contain substantial amounts of friable (crumbling and flaking) asbestos.
What’s Being Done About It?
Currently, asbestos abatement and control is underway in many power plants. A patent from 1991 (U.S. #5034075) describes a method for containing asbestos on the surfaces of mechanical equipment with a resin and catalyst mixture. According to the patent, glass is applied either with the resin, or after it is in place. The surface of the machinery would then be compacted using brushes or rollers in order to remove air bubbles and smooth the surface.
If you are employed at a power generation plant – particularly one that is thirty years old or more – it is important to take proper precautions and use an EPA-approved respirator wherever asbestos fibers are suspected.