Radioactive Pollution & Some Potential Solutions

Mountain Pass Rare Earths mine in California, where REEs are mined, separated, and milled.

Radioactive pollution has been an issue connected to rare earth processing in Malaysia, and rare earth mining and processing in Kerala, India, has led to lowered pH of soil and water, iron and chlorine pollution, increases in toxic heavy metals, and radioactive dust. In the US, Kerr-McGee was responsible for four Superfund sites throughout the 20th century in the West Chicago area. And the Mountain Pass Mine in California closed in 2002 after releasing hundreds of gallons of wastewater containing thorium, radium, lead, barium, uranium, and strontium, contaminating groundwater as well as surface waters.

Rare earths can be mined as a primary product, can be produced as a co- or by-product of other mineral production, or can be recycled from existing products containing rare earths. Rare earths processing involves crushing, grinding, and separating, often through either acid or alkaline chemical treatment. Rare earths are generally difficult to separate from other minerals and difficult to separate from each other, due to their identical physical and chemical properties. Processing rare earths produces significant amounts of waste material, as noted above, and large quantities of rare earths are required to produce the various technologies they enable. For example, according to USA Rare Earth CEO Pini Althaus, one wind turbine requires almost a ton of rare earth magnets to function properly.

Electric Vehicle Batteries.

Recycling rare earths from existing products, including batteries, lamps, automotive catalysts, motors, and generators, would alleviate some of the concerns related to groundwater contamination, air pollution, radioactive pollution, and other kinds of contamination associated with rare earths mining. Attempts to subsidize and encourage recycling of rare earths are underway in the US, Japan, and the European Union, including research on treating existing acid mine drainage and the toxic residue from coal-fired power plants to extract rare earths. Nanotechnology research is underway to use plant cellulose to extract rare earths from industrial wastewater, mining tailings, and permanent magnets. Research into alternatives to rare earth elements is also ongoing, indicating that copper, zinc, tin, sulfur, iron, and boron hold promise to replicate some of rare earths’ unique qualities. These strategies would all be less damaging than establishing new mines, but rare earths processing also involves toxic side effects. In general, serious conversations are necessary about the environmental destruction necessary to keep up the Western world’s demand for ever-more energy and resources. Simply substituting another source of energy to replace fossil fuels will not solve the problem if the status quo is preserved and exploitation continues unchecked.

Due to their unusual physical and chemical properties, such as unique magnetic and optical properties, REEs have diverse applications that touch many aspects of modern life and culture. Specific REEs are used individually or in combination to make phosphors—substances that emit luminescence—for many types of ray tubes and flat panel displays, in screens that range in size from smart phone displays to stadium scoreboards. Some REEs are used in fluorescent and LED lighting. Yttrium, europium, and terbium phosphors are the red-green-blue phosphors used in many light bulbs, panels, and televisions.

~ Source: USGS Mineral Resources Program – REE Fact Sheet by the USGS.

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