Renewables need minerals

Can their pollution and public health challenges be overcome?

By Linda Pentz Gunter

We are now both on the path to — and amidst the crisis of — resolving our past greed and irresponsibility in the energy and transport sector. But few, if any, human industries are without a carbon footprint. This has made the climb out of our carbon-intensive paradigm all the harder. 

Consequently, our first imperative — in order to do as little current or future environmental harm as possible — is to focus on solutions that have the lowest carbon footprint and environmental and human impact. This puts conservation at the pinnacle of our priorities, followed by energy efficiency. 

Particularly in developed countries — where we bear almost the entire responsibility for the mess we have made of our planet — we can, and must, consume less, become more energy efficient, live in smaller homes, use public transport routinely, walk and bicycle more and drive and fly less.

Using fossil fuels has to stop. Completely. And ideally now, but, realistically, as soon as possible. Replacement power will still be needed. But nuclear power, which creates long-lived lethal radioactive waste from the beginning to the end of its fuel cycle, and, as a large thermo-electric generator, relies on huge quantities of what will become increasingly scarce water supplies, is not the substitute for fossil fuels. Nuclear power cannot be an environmentally clean and just energy solution. And it has no answers for the transport sector, either.

Yet, as we decry the extraction of uranium — and all its attendant poisoning of the environment and ourselves along with human rights violations — we are met with the legitimate argument that increasing the use of renewables (and electric cars) in order to decarbonize, brings with it the same extractive environmental impacts.

The dispersal of radioactive elements from uranium tailings at mine sites and into the surrounding air, soil, and water, makes cleanup challenging and expensive, a cost the nuclear industry would rather avoid. (Photo: IAEA Imagebank)

But are they really the same? If we dig deeper, to use an unwelcome metaphor, we find parallels but not necessarily equity between the impacts of renewables and nuclear. This does not excuse or justify worker abuse, human rights violations or extractive contamination in any sector. But it’s an important distinction. 

First and foremost, we must look to carbon emissions. It makes sense, even if all the other downsides were equal — which they clearly are not — to at least focus on the lowest carbon emitters. And those are unquestionably renewables. Therefore, our responsibility now is to put things right in the renewable energy industry, even as we must point out, criticize and urge change in those areas that need improvement, including recycling, sustainable sourcing and human rights.

A second priority, is the ability and willingness of industries to make those improvements. 

We have seen how the wind industry has worked to minimize its impacts on migratory birds. It’s no coincidence that some of the biggest bird conservation groups, including BirdLife International, the American Bird Conservancy and the Audubon Society, cautiously support the development of wind power while scrupulously watchdogging its progress.

The renewable energy and electric vehicle industries recognize the fact that they rely on mineral extraction and, as such, must try to mitigate or avoid negative environmental, social and human rights impacts. Unlike the nuclear industry — which has been guilty of environmental and human rights abuses since it began — the renewable energy industry is working to resolve these significant drawbacks.

As Justine Calma wrote in The Verge at the end of last year: “There are ways to get the minerals the clean energy revolution needs while minimizing the impact on people and the planet. Startups are figuring out how to get better at recycling lithium batteries.” Mining companies are also looking to power their extraction using renewables rather than fossil fuels.

The World Bank program — The Climate-Smart Mining Initiative — aims to help “resource-rich developing countries benefit from the increasing demand for minerals and metals, while ensuring the mining sector is managed in a way that minimizes the environmental and climate footprint as it works to decarbonize”.

Copper mining, needed for the renewable energy industry, amongst others, comes with environmental and human rights issues. (Photo: Photo by omid roshan on Unsplash)

The nuclear industry, by contrast, has made no such effort to mitigate its environmental impact, and cannot do so, because splitting the atom to boil water is inherently dangerous and polluting. Worse, the industry actively pushes back against — or outright rejects — mitigation efforts because it would cost the already financially struggling nuclear sector money it can’t afford to expend if it is to stay in business.

The end product of nuclear power is long-lived highly radioactive waste with no long-term, safe, permanent management solution. While the renewable energy sector is looking into the recycling of batteries, there is no recycling of nuclear waste. Reprocessing — often misleadingly called “recycling” — does no such thing. 

In separating out the uranium and plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel, reprocessing produces even higher volumes of largely “low” and “intermediate”-level radioactive wastes, discharged into the air and sea or stored indefinitely.

The mining of uranium for use in nuclear power leaves behind radioactive waste and heavy metals that persistently contaminate the local environments, harming the health and safety of those communities and that of their land and water resources.

Nevertheless, there is no getting around the reality that the renewable industry, too, requires mining of minerals and rare earth metals, and that recycling, while beneficial, is not always done sustainably.

These hurdles are laid out in detail in a useful report prepared for Earthworks by the Institute for Sustainable Futures — Responsible minerals sourcing for renewable energy (Dominish, E., Florin, N. and Teske, S., 2019, Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy. Report prepared for Earthworks by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney.) 

The report emphasizes that “recycling and responsible sourcing are fundamental to improving the sustainability of the renewable energy transition”.

However, it points out that while “the renewable energy and battery industries have made significant improvements to the efficiency of technologies, to improve performance, minimize demand for materials and reduce production costs,” attention to stewardship and human rights abuses has been less promising. “The industry experts interviewed noted that reducing the environmental and social impacts of supply is not a major focus of the renewable energy industry.”

Inevitably, many of the resources for the renewable energy industry (along with electric vehicles, not discussed here as these are outside our energy focus), are to be found in troubled parts of the world — most notably DR Congo. In turn, the manufacturing of those minerals into metals is largely carried out in China, where human rights are suppressed.

Material use for wind turbine manufacture is already very efficient, says a report examining responsible sourcing and recycling in the renewable energy industry. (Photo of wind turbine manufacture by Hepburn Wind/Creative Commons)

The impacts of mining to supply the renewable energy industry invariably result in “pollution and heavy metal contamination of water and agricultural soils, and health impacts on workers and surrounding communities”.

The wind energy industry emerges as the least offender, according to the report. “Material use for wind turbines is already very efficient. Recycling of bulk materials (steel, aluminium, copper) used in wind turbines is well established with high recycling rates.”

The report offers some glimmers of hope, noting that increased use of renewables means a reduction in coal mining, “which is responsible for the greatest number of fatalities, health and environmental issues.”

But we are undoubtedly now in the land of Faustian bargains. We have left it too late to make choices that are problem-free. Renewables, therefore, must be measured up against the alternatives and nuclear power isn’t one of them. Aside from the carbon footprint and human rights violations of nuclear power, and its high costs and long construction times, we must also factor in the lethal waste; the daily radioactive releases harming primarily children; the outcome of a catastrophic accident; and the inextricable link to nuclear weapons development, to name a few.

We must learn to live more simply; smaller. More quietly. Tread lightly. And yes, we must transition to renewables, energy efficiency and conservation, not tomorrow, not gradually, but immediately. Can we do it without leaving yet another mess? Without further abuses?

As the ISF study concludes, not yet, but we are getting there. “There are a large number of responsible sourcing initiatives that promote environmental stewardship and the respect of human rights in the supply chain, most of which are voluntary and industry-led,” the authors wrote. “If these initiatives are harmonized and widely adopted, it may lead to more responsible supply chains.”

Until then, renewables are our least worst power option, and, out of time as we are, it’s a choice we have brought upon ourselves.

Headline photo of lithium mine in Argentina by Lithium mine Argentina Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE/CC.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

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