The terrible pollution from Chinese rare earth manufacturing


It's entirely true that socialist and communist mineral extraction methods are not quite as interestingly clean as we might like. It's also true that the technologies used in China for the disposal of the wastes from such processes are less clean or safe than we would accept in our own back yards. It is, however, possible to lose any sense of proportion about this. The BBC has a long piece about just that pollution:

You can see the lake on Google Maps, and that hints at the scale. Zoom in far enough and you can make out the dozens of pipes that line the shore. Unknown Fields’ Liam Young collected some samples of the waste and took it back to the UK to be tested. “The clay we collected from the toxic lake tested at around three times background radiation,” he later tells me.

Unknown Fields has an unusual plan for the stuff. “We are using this radioactive clay to make a series of ceramic vessels modelled on traditional Ming vases,” Young explains, “each proportioned based on the amount of toxic waste produced by the rare earth minerals used in a particular tech gadget.” The idea is to illustrate the impact our consumer goods have on the environment, even when that environment might be unseen and thousands of miles away.

We admit, we've never really understood why every hippie is so fascinated by home made pottery. But they are correct in that rare earth mining does mean radioactive substances. Almost all such pores have thorium in them. As no one uses thorium to do very much that thorium is left in the wastes rather than extracted. And do note that none is created: what is being done is that extant radioactive metals are being pulled out of the earth in one place then dumped back onto the earth a few kilometres away. However, there's something rather more important here. What they're saying is true, there's radioactivity in that thar' lake. But is it an important amount?

Three times background? The difference between London and Cornwall. No, it's not an important amount.