Michael McCarthy: The ecological risks of clean energy's 'dirty little secret'

Share
Related Topics

Producing rare-earth metals carries considerable environmental risks, not least because the ores in which they are found often contain thorium, radium and uranium, which are radioactive. Add to that the toxic acids involved in the refining process, and the "tailings", or waste sludge, from the mine can be very unpleasant indeed. Rare earths, which are widely used in such green energy applications as electric cars and wind turbines, have been referred to as "clean energy's dirty little secret".

The environmental difficulties are well illustrated by the Mountain Pass mine in California. Until it closed in 2002, the Mojave desert facility for a long time provided most of the world's rare-earth metals, but the environmental cost was high. In the 1980s, its owners began piping its waste water, which carried radioactive waste, to evaporation ponds 14 miles away. However, the pipeline ruptured some 60 times – until it was shut down in 1998 – and 600,000 gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste flowed out into the surrounding desert. The company was eventually ordered to mount a major clean-up exercise and was fined more than $1m (£650,000).

Mountain Pass closed eight years ago because of the environmental difficulties and because the price of rare earths had dropped, making operations uneconomic. But China's tightening of supplies has led to a decision by Mountain Pass's new owners, Molycorp Inc, to reopen it. This year, the company issued shares to raise the $500m that restarting production will cost. One of the great prizes from reopening Mountain Pass will be the rare-earth mineral neodymium, which makes the world's lightest and strongest magnets, essential for the electric motors of hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius, and for wind turbines.

Molycorp hopes to have the mine working again by late 2011 after negotiating environmental safeguards with no fewer than 18 California regulatory agencies. The company will be spending $2.4m a year on environmental monitoring and compliance – a cost its Chinese competitors may not have to bear.

But even if its products turn out to be more expensive, Molycorp has already signed supply contracts with customers both in the US and Japan, such is the demand for rare earths.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there