Whilst Rare Earth’s are required for a variety of “green” technologies including wind turbines and hybrid/electric cars both the extraction and processing of rare earths has significant environmental risks in its potential for the spread of radioactive material and toxic chemicals, and the acidification of watersheds.
Their use effectively assists in relieving one type of environmental strain, climate change, while risking another, in a complicated risk/benefit relationship.
Rare Earth elements are almost always found in conjunction with radioactivity, meaning that all the waste streams from mining (water, rock, and air pollution) can create a radioactive hazard. Although rare earths are not radioactive, in nature they are usually found mixed with thorium. A concern at the site of mining rare earths is radioactive waste water spills as experienced in both the United States and China. The largest rare earth mine in the world, near Baotou in China has significant problems with water and air pollution.
In addition to the direct impacts of mining such as the footprint of the mine and the problems with radioactivity, the processing of rare earths requires a number of intensive steps, often using toxic chemicals and acids and results in radioactive Thorium as a by-product. The processing of Lynas rare earth ore at their Lynas Advanced Materials Plant in Malaysia raises serious health, environmental and economic concerns for local communities and their livelihoods.