Time To Face The Thorium

Rare earth oxides, clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium and gadolinium. Image courtesy of Peggy Greb, Agricultural Research Service, US Department of Agriculture.

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

Love your smartphone that delivers clear sound and bright colors but still fits in your pocket? Give thanks to neodymium, a rare earth element that makes the magnets in your phone so powerful that it can be as small as it is. Wind turbines and electric cars need the unique magnetic properties of dysprosium, another rare earth element. Virtually every form of clean energy technology today needs rare earth elements to function.

But the rare earth elements come with an unavoidable by-product: thorium. Thorium, named after the Norse god of thunder, is a mildly radioactive element. Digging up rare earths creates thorium waste, a huge liability for the mining industry. And because only China tolerates thorium’s environmental hazards in storage and disposal, ninety-seven percent of all the rare earth elements that we need come from China. Yet, we don’t have to cede rare earth production to China: the rare earth elements can be mined and produced domestically if we safely dispose of or even find uses for thorium.

Rare earth elements, a group of seventeen metals, are essential in the manufacture of devices ranging from cars to wind turbines to laptops.  These elements contain special magnetic, electronic and optical properties found nowhere else in the periodic table. For example, gadolinium has  magnetic properties for enhancing MRI images; dysprosium is critical for miniaturizing while helping permanent magnets remain strong and magnetic; yttrium improves fuel efficiency in vehicles and reduces pollution, and europium oxide produces a bright red color in television and computer screens. Take away those seventeen metals and the technological world as we know it becomes slower, bulkier and massively crippled.

The term ‘rare’ is a misnomer: rare earth metals can be found scattered in small amounts all over the world. The extraction of each of the pure elements involves extremely tedious, repetitive steps with costly chemicals, which is why they are deemed ‘rare.’ To reach those elements, one has to work past thorium; in fact, detecting the weak radiation from thorium is a method used to find the metals.

In the mid-1960s to 80s, Mountain Pass mine in California, owned by Molycorp Minerals, was one of the largest supplier of rare earth elements for the world. The company was forced to cease production in 2002 because of thorium-contaminated wastewater and competition from China. Over the last three decades, almost every other country has wound down its rare earth production, while China expanded the industry on every front, from academic research to industrial processing techniques.

China’s dominance of rare earth production comes with a price. Radioactive wastewater and thorium-tainted tailings have found their way into the Yellow River and Yellow Sea, polluting a water source for some 150 million people. China’s monopoly on the global rare earth supply also threatens the security of the global rare earth supply. During a dispute with Japan in 2010, China withheld dysprosium, a crucial rare earth element to the Japanese technology industry. The move destabilized the rare earth market as prices skyrocketed. China has also forced companies like Magnequench, General Electric and Ford Motors to relocate some factories, if not entire businesses, to China.

In March 2012,  the United States, European Union and Japan filed a challenge with the World Trade Organization against China for unfair restraints on exports of rare earth elements. The solution, however, is not to blame China, but to mine the rare earths domestically and find ways to handle thorium. Last year, Molycorp Minerals reopened the Mountain Pass mine, using modern methods to minimize thorium pollution, such as mixing solid tailings with concrete and recycling wastewater in a closed-loop system. But as more and more rare earth is produced, there will be even more thorium to process.

Another solution would be to put thorium to good use in nuclear power generating emissions-free energy. In recent years nuclear power experts have advocated taking a new look at a power generating system that can run on thorium fuel, an inherently safer technology than conventional fission reactors. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory successfully tested a molten-salt reactor for three years beginning in 1965, but President Richard Nixon de-funded the program because it did not produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

Some may argue that nuclear power is not viable; that and we should stick with the true renewables like solar and wind energy. Yet those and other renewable technologies depend on rare earth elements. When we find uses for thorium, not only do we eliminate a waste problem, we can help technology move towards a cleaner and more secure future.

The Push to Make Wind Farms Less Deadly

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

There is nothing more majestic than an eagle soaring through the sky, but the rise of renewable energy—especially wind energy—is encroaching on their airspace with deadly consequences. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed new permit regulations that would allow wind farms and other renewable energy industries to kill a set number of eagles over a period of 30 years. Previously, the permits only lasted five years. Critics argue the proposed changes weaken protection for eagles in favor of promoting the growth of the renewable energy industry. A final decision is expected before the end of the year.

Wind farms—clusters of turbines 30 stories tall with rotors 180 feet wide—kill more than 573,000 birds annually, including 83,000 predatory birds such as eagles, falcons, and hawks, according to a study published in March in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin. The spinning turbine blades can create wind vortexes up to 170 mph that suck birds into the blades, killing them.

A wind farm in southern California. Photo courtesy of Alex Ferguson, Flicker Creative Commons.
A wind farm in southern California. Photo courtesy of Alex Ferguson, Flicker Creative Commons.

As wind energy continues to be one of the fastest growing energy sectors, thanks to the $1 billion-a-year tax break provided by the government, concerns over bird deaths are becoming more urgent. Last year, turbines at wind farms in California, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, killed at least 27 eagles according to the Associated Press. That figure is substantially underestimated, according to scientists, because wind energy companies are not required to report eagle deaths.

The USFWS hopes to change that and believes the proposed regulations will not only encourage the growth of wind farms, but will also encourage wind farms to be more conservation-minded. Stipulations of the new permit include consultation with the USFWS during design phases, building turbines away from ridge edges to decrease eagle collisions, avoiding the use of structures attractive to eagles for perching such as transmission towers, and implementing advanced conservation practices such as shutting turbines down during the times of day or year when eagles are migrating. “If fatalities were occurring then we would require [wind farms] to implement experimental conservation practices to mitigate the deaths,” said USFWS Biologist and National Raptor Coordinator Brian Millsap. “Once we scientifically show that a measure reduces fatalities, then it would become a formal practice and we would require it as the regulation specifies.”

Some conservationists remain skeptical of the proposed regulations’ scientific rigor. “They need to set up a program that works, which means they need to immediately get started on gathering the data and research to do that,” said Katie Umekubo, a renewable energy attorney with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “There are a lot of data gaps right now that we need to fill,” she said.

However, finding the necessary research funds could prove to be an even bigger challenge.  A portion of the $36,000 per permit fee is intended for research, but that money combined with government funding won’t be enough—at least in this political and fiscal climate, according to Executive Director of the Ornithological Council Ellen Paul. “We are putting a lot of birds at risk. Those turbines will be going for 30 years and all that time people will be hoping to figure out what to do about mortality,” said Paul. “There isn’t enough research money and we don’t know if the research will help us devise meaningful management practices.”

An American bald eagle soars through the sky in one of the many national wildlife refuges in the U.S. Photo Courtesy of  George Gentry, USFWS.
An American bald eagle soars through the sky in one of the many national wildlife refuges in the U.S. Photo courtesy of George Gentry, USFWS.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature removed bald and golden eagles from the list of threatened and endangered species years ago, but the birds are still protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The five-year time-frame allotted by current permits was deemed too short by the USFWS for long-term energy projects to secure funding and other necessary assurances to move forward with construction. No wind farms currently hold permits and only one application is under review—something the USFWS hopes will change under the new guidelines.

Although the proposed permits last for three decades, they would still come with constant and intense oversight. The USFWS would treat the permit as if it were issued in five-year increments, examining data collected on deaths and determining what advanced conservation practices should be applied, Millsap explained. But if turbines continue to kill eagles and operators can’t get it under control, then the USFWS has the right to rescind the permits. Operators would have to decide to cease operation or operate without a permit and risk prosecution if an eagle is killed.

Though the guidelines call for better monitoring, the lack of transparency is troublesome, especially to the NRDC. “We’ve been told that the five year reviews will not be public,” said Umekubo. “One large concern is how we will ensure effective oversight and implementation of the best available science and adaptive management.”

Along with their partners, the NRDC has suggested using transparent adaptive management practices including placing eagle population data, permitting information and other pertinent eagle research on a publicly available website, using independent scientific advisory panels to recommend advanced conservation practices, and third party monitoring and data collection at wind farms.