Big Wind's Dirty Little Secret

November 1, 2013

The wind industry promotes itself as better for the environment than traditional energy sources such as coal and natural gas.  But there are many ways to skin a cat.  Modern wind turbines depend on rare earth minerals mined primarily from China.  The process of extracting these minerals imposes wretched environmental and public health impacts on local communities.

Simon Parry from the Daily Mail traveled to Baotou, China, to see the mines, factories, and dumping grounds associated with China's rare-earths industry. What he found was truly haunting:  As more factories sprang up, the banks grew higher, the lake grew larger and the stench and fumes grew more overwhelming.  People too began to suffer.

  • Dalahai villagers say their teeth began to fall out, their hair turned white at unusually young ages, and they suffered from severe skin and respiratory diseases. Children were born with soft bones and cancer rates rocketed.
  • Official studies carried out five years ago in Dalahai village confirmed there were unusually high rates of cancer along with high rates of osteoporosis and skin and respiratory diseases.
  • The lake's radiation levels are ten times higher than in the surrounding countryside, the studies found.

Estimates of the exact amount of rare earth minerals in wind turbines vary, but in any case the numbers are staggering. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences:

  • A 2 megawatt (MW) wind turbine contains about 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium.
  • The MIT study cited above estimates that a 2 MW wind turbine contains about 752 pounds of rare earth minerals.
  • To quantify this in terms of environmental damages, consider that mining one ton of rare earth minerals produces about one ton of radioactive waste, according to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

In 2012, the U.S. added a record 13,131 MW of wind generating capacity. That means that between 4.9 million pounds (using MIT's estimate) and 6.1 million pounds (using the Bulletin of Atomic Science's estimate) of rare earths were used in wind turbines installed in 2012. It also means that between 4.9 million and 6.1 million pounds of radioactive waste were created to make these wind turbines.

That means the U.S. wind industry may well have created more radioactive waste last year than our entire nuclear industry produced in spent fuel. In this sense, the nuclear industry seems to be doing more with less: nuclear energy comprised about one-fifth of America's electrical generation in 2012, while wind accounted for just 3.5 percent of all electricity generated in the United States.

All forms of energy production have some environmental impact. However, it is disingenuous for wind lobbyists to hide the impacts of their industry while highlighting the impacts of others.

Source:  Travis Fisher and Alex Fitzsimmons, "Big Wind's Dirty Little Secret: Toxic Lakes and Radioactive Waste," Rightside News, October 23, 2013.

 

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