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I was doing some extra research on the question: Did wind power supply less than half a percent of global energy in 2014? The question was based on an article that claimed:

But out of sight and out of mind is the dirty pollution generated ... by the mining of rare-earth metals for the magnets in the turbines. This generates toxic and radioactive waste on an epic scale...

The Spectator: Wind turbines are neither clean nor green and they provide zero global energy - 13/05/2017 (emphasize mine)

I found this claim quite interesting, but after investigating I found an even more detailed claim:

[In 2012] between 4.9 million and 6.1 million pounds of radioactive waste were created to make these [U.S.] wind turbines.

For perspective, America’s nuclear industry produces between 4.4 million and 5 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel each year. 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.

Institute for Energy Research: Big Wind’s Dirty Little Secret: Toxic Lakes and Radioactive Waste - 23/10/2013 (emphasize mine)

Just to be clear, this is an article from 2013 and the claims are about 2012. The article continues to explain that "the nuclear industry seems to be doing more with less" and that we are being deceived by the "wind lobbyists".

I wasn't entirely sure what "spent fuel" means in this context, but according to Wikipedia, world-nuclear.org, The Hiroshima Syndrome and whatisnuclear.com: nuclear power plant waste = spent fuel

So the question is:

Did the production of U.S. wind turbines produce more radioactive waste than U.S. nuclear power plants in 2012?

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    I just had a look at who that "institute" is, boy, bias much? (on their side, no direct criticism of OP intended) – Federico May 19 '17 at 13:39
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    The US fruit industry probably produced more than both en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_equivalent_dose (more seriously I'm not sure how you are going to determine more, by total mass or by total emitted ionizing radiation) – daniel May 19 '17 at 13:45
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    If the "radioactive waste" generated by mining the rare earths is counted against the wind turbines, we'd have to count the waste generated when mining Uranium against the nuclear industry as well, don't we? (Instead of "just" looking at the spent fuel, which would have to be counted on top of that.) – DevSolar May 19 '17 at 14:36
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    @CPerkins Indeed since everything is somewhat radioactive, any waste could be called 'radioactive waste' by someone more interested in scaremongering than truth. I found no reference to what the article meant by 'radioactive'. – DJClayworth May 19 '17 at 15:47
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    The linked report credits "mining one ton of rare earth minerals produces about one ton of radioactive waste" to Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, which attributes it to an unspecified article published by the Chinese Society of Rare Earths with the quote "“Every ton of rare earth produced, generates ... about one ton of radioactive waste residue (containing water)." Which is widely quoted, but not sourced anywhere I could find. – jeffronicus May 19 '17 at 18:40
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While the numbers provided by the sources seem to be strictly correct, they are lacking a significant amount of context. Once this context is injected into the discussion, the manufacture of Wind Turbines does not create as much radiation as Nuclear waste.


The primary claim, from the Institute for Energy Research (second quoted block in the question) seems to be true. The 4.9 million pounds of waste number is calculated using data from an MIT Research study and an Institute for the Analysis of Global Security study (although the IAGS study quotes a Chinese Society of Rare Earths article that I cannot seem to find an original source for.)

The radioactive waste from Nuclear power production seems to be quoted from a Nuclear Energy Institute page that claims that

The nuclear industry generates a total of about 2,000 - 2,300 metric tons of used fuel per year.

which would translate into roughly the numbers given by the report.


However, there are two things that negate the argument made by Institute for Energy Research.

1. The numbers quoted for radioactive waste generation is an apples to oranges comparison.

The quoted number for Wind Turbines is the amount of waste generated by producing and constructing a Wind Turbine. Once the turbine is constructed, the Turbine should no longer produce radioactive waste over its lifetime. Many different sources claim different values, but the general consensus is that a Wind Turbine should last from 12 to 25 years. While there may be a large upfront cost for the Turbines, there is no more waste produced after it comes online.

The quoted number for Nuclear plants, on the other hand, is the amount of waste produced per year by operating the plant. The plant must continue to produce that waste or it will shut off. The article, by comparing these two numbers, can be translated to the claim that

The amount of radioactive waste generated by increasing the amount of Wind Energy produced by the United States by 13.1 GW for the next 12-25 years is slightly more than the waste generated to maintain current Nuclear Energy production.

2. All radioactive waste is not created equal.

The article uses "tons of radioactive waste" as if all waste is interchangeable. To quote Comparing the Amount of Radioactivity Found in Radioactive Wastes

It should be noted that just as knowing the number of gallons or pounds of a toxic chemical substance is not sufficient to completely predict the hazard posed by the chemical, knowing the number of curies in a radioactive material is not sufficient to predict the hazard posed by the material.

The EPA, in a study titled Rare Earth Elements: A Review of Production, Processing, Recycling, and Associated Environmental Issues, says

the radiation levels from waste rock and sludges[sic] associated with the production of REOs range from 5.7 to 3,224 pCi/g.

Taking the high estimate of this number, we can calculate the total Curies (amount of radioactivity) given off by this toxic waste as

(4.7 Mlbs) * (453 g / lb) * (3,224 pCi / g) = 6.659 trillion pico-Curies = 6.659 Curies.

Compare this to the numbers provided by "Comparing the Amount of Radioactivity Found in Radioactive Wastes"

  1. Total curies in a typical spent fuel rod after 120 days of cooling : 1,800,000 Ci

  2. Total curies in a typical spent fuel rod after 10 years of cooling : 130,000 Ci

A single spent fuel rod is several orders of magnitude more radioactive than the radioactive waste produced by the manufacture of Wind Turbines for an entire year.


Note that, even with these numbers, it is still a significant concern of the international community. Quoted from Wikipedia

pollution concerns associated with the extraction of this rare-earth element have prompted government action in recent years,[43][44] and international research attempts to refine the extraction process.[45] Research is underway on turbine and generator designs which reduce the need for neodymium, or eliminate the use of rare-earth metals altogether.[46] Additionally, the large wind turbine manufacturer Enercon GmbH chose very early not to use permanent magnets for its direct drive turbines, in order to avoid responsibility for the adverse environmental impact of rare earth mining.[47]

There are efforts to reduce the amount of radioactive waste generated by Wind Turbine manufacturing, but the amount produced does not outweigh the waste produced by fission reactions.

  • The very best part is that you don't even need rare-earth magnets to make turbines. Of any sort. You could try to make the same argument about the radioactivity of the turbines that generate electricity from nuclear power, for example, and you'd be even more wrong. – Ernie Jul 6 '17 at 16:22
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    You also need to divide by the amount of energy produced, to make it a fair comparison. – endolith Jul 8 '17 at 21:55
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    @endolith that was kind of what I was referring to in my first bolded point. Do we go off of energy capacity added from all that waste? If so, the denominator for Nuclear Power is 0. Do we go off the energy produced by those plants in particular? That skews heavily in favor of Nuclear Power, comparing 1 year of wind manufacturing to 50+ years of nuclear manufacturing. Maybe we go with energy delivered over the lifetime of the plants vs. waste generated over its lifetime. But if we're calculating manufacturing waste for wind, we have to do it for nuclear too. – DenisS Jul 10 '17 at 14:52
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This claim makes one very important and very obvious assumption: That all wind generators use rare earth magnets. Or, for that matter, that they even use permanent magnets at all.

They don't.

From the linked article:

There are many different types of generators used today in wind turbines, but the most common types are asynchronous generators. The two types most commonly used are the squirrel cage induction generator and the wound rotor induction generator—also known as a doubly feed induction generator (DFIG).

(links mine)

Both of these types of generators are AC generators that require an external AC power source to actually generate useful electricity. This is also true of most other generator types at coal, hydro, and nuclear power plants. This fact alone chops the legs out from under their argument, and they might as well try to complain that the generators in nuclear powerplants have the same problem.

The rest of the math could be correct for all I care (Although Denis Stallings destroys that argument too), but because this basic assumption is laughably false and is intended to use your ignorance for their gain, it doesn't matter. The whole of the rest of the claims in their theory are also wrong.

It's worth noting that the same argument is levelled at the motors in electric cars, and that one is mostly false too.

  • (1/2) That is a very interesting addition to the claim. I was working under the assumption that the claims by the IAGS were factually accurate since I was unable to fully vet their claims out (as noted in my answer from earlier.) The AC generators I'm assuming use electromagnets in order to generate an EM field in order to produce energy, instead of the rare-earth magnets that are in use by other turbines? I'm not an expert but that would make some sense. Taking a drop in yield in exchange for not having to use rare-earth minerals, which undoubtedly produce more toxic waste to produce. – DenisS Jul 6 '17 at 19:51
  • (2/2) Is it possible that only a fraction of wind turbines (those manufactured without AC generators) produce the 4.9 million pounds that is quoted by the IAGS? This would imply that wind turbines that use RE Magnets contribute more toxic waste per unit than the industry average, and AC generator turbines produce less. Or maybe the AC generators actually produce more, but the byproducts are less harmful than the byproducts of RE mining? – DenisS Jul 6 '17 at 19:55
  • As the WindSystemsmag.com article says, there are many types of wind generators, but the ones I mention are the most common type, used in the big AC generators intended for grid use. I recall that permanent magnet generators only produce DC electricity, and would therefore not be suitable for large wind turbines intended for utility-scale electricity production. There would also be further losses converting DC to AC anyway, which is likely greater than the losses they see in running the electromagnets. I don't think that utility-scale providers care about how much RE minerals they use. – Ernie Jul 7 '17 at 21:10
  • It also turns out that most commercial generators do use permanent magnets: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permanent_magnet_synchronous_generator However, I recall the way they control the frequency of the electricity they generate is by controlling the speed at which the generator turns. This isn't practical for wind turbines, so they use one of the other designs I mentioned in my answer instead. – Ernie Jul 7 '17 at 21:19
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    The corollary to that is that if anyone is going to use rare earth magnets for power generation, there's nothing holding back every large commercial generator from using RE magnets either. So who exactly are they pointing the finger at anyway? Oh, clearly they mean other generator types. Their generators are without fault! – Ernie Jul 7 '17 at 21:22

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