Aluminium is all around us, an indispensable part of modern life, taken for granted in applications as diverse as planes and chocolate wrappers.
So deeply is it embedded in our world that it takes a surge of stinking, caustic red mud, turning the blue Danube crimson, to remind us of its real and potential environmental costs.
In essence, manufactured aluminium is clay plus electricity – electricity in stunning quantities: one ton of the metal takes up to 17,000 kilowatt hours of electricity to produce, which in turn requires nearly 1,400 tons of water. The production of one ton of aluminium also gives rise to one ton of red mud, which contains several toxic heavy metals in a highly unstable form. There is nothing to be done with this stuff except to store it as safely as possible. As the Hungarian authorities admitted, the catastrophe that engulfed the village of Kolontar, killing at least six people and eliminating all life in its path, was a human, not a natural disaster.
Its proximate cause clearly lay in negligence at the local level, which may be traced to the vicissitudes that affected many eastern and central European industries after the collapse of the socialist economies. But the repercussions do not stop at the Hungarian border: even if the amount reaching the Danube is contained to a minimum, when the mud dries, the toxic dust will blow wherever the wind takes it.
There are no votes in toxic waste: all over Europe nuclear waste is held in temporary storage because of the local outrage that greets efforts to give it a permanent address. But the Kolontar disaster underlines the need for us to take these hazards seriously, to share information and to address them jointly. This may not be one of the more glamorous functions of the European Union, but it is one of the most vital. The risks posed by nuclear reactors are well known, but we neglect the liabilities of these older technologies, such as those used to produce aluminium, at our peril.