A rare earth processing plant's waste could contain the element Thorium, which is radioactive.

I've pored through plenty of articles and Thorium by virtue of its long half-life has a very low amount of radioactivity. Proponents of rare earth processing cite this as a reason for the safety of rare earth processing. However, opponents claim that Thorium's decay products (in particular, Radium) are very radioactive and thus pose a major health hazard.

Here's an example of this type of quote from Rare Earth Investing News:

The production of rare earth oxides comes attached with a major problem: radioactive waste. The mining of the rare earths and the processing of the various elements produces large amounts of thorium as a byproduct. This material is radioactive and dangerous to human health.

However, in the Wikipedia article on Thorium, it was stated that the alpha radiation that natural Thorium (Th-232) emits cannot penetrate skin, or even a few inches of air.

Natural thorium decays very slowly compared to many other radioactive materials, and the alpha radiation emitted cannot penetrate human skin meaning owning and handling small amounts of thorium, such as a gas mantle, is considered safe.

Page 35 of a report from the IAEA commissioned for a rare earth processing plant in Malaysia indicated that predicted levels of radiation exposure to the public is around 0.002 mSv/year. Contrasting this figure with other examples of yearly dose figures it appears to be very insignificant.

Granted, the 0.002 mSv/year figure appears to be the dosage from radiation emitted by the plant rather than the waste products. However, Page 17 of the IAEA report claims that:

The radionuclide concentrations in the flue gas desulphurization and neutralization underflow residues are expected to be very low -- similar to the average values in normal rocks and soil worldwide (and in Malaysia)

(The main solid byproducts of this plant are flue gas desulphurization residue, neutralization underflow residue, and water leach purification residue.)

In light of the conflicting claims, how dangerous would the radiation from a buried cache of waste product be to the surrounding community?

  • 1
    Looks like your first question -- welcome to skeptics.SE! I added a quote and link to the source, which is typical here in order to verify that claims are at least somewhat notable (hope that was okay). One suggestion is that you may want to clarify your question. Do you want to know if they by-products are dangerous at all or if they pose major threats to massive amounts of people? Maybe the question could be "How dangerous are rare earth processing by-products?"
    – Hendy
    Mar 8, 2012 at 4:03
  • 1
    Thanks @Hendy, I'm still not entirely sure how to ask a good question here. I'll look around and learn from the top questions. :)
    – Raintree
    Mar 8, 2012 at 11:40
  • Nice updates, though some of those are starting to look like the things that could appear in an answer :) You could probably trim some of the specific details about radiation amounts and leave your last question. Or leave it as is. The nice thing about voting sites is if people don't like something... you'll know quite quickly. You're upvoted, so I wouldn't worry!
    – Hendy
    Mar 8, 2012 at 13:32

1 Answer 1


I understand the issue is not the thorium itself, but what thorium yields in terms of decay products. This ANL report points out that Thorium 230 turns into radium 226, then radon 222, then polonium, etc. Thorium 228 has a similar decay chain. The decay products have much shorter half lives, but it is radon that one might fear the most since it will not stay in the ground, away from direct contact. As a gas, it will end up in the lungs of those who live in the area. Once in your lungs, radon is now a problem.

  • As regards this question, though, is the amount from processing significant. People live in areas with high natural radon without too many problems. Is this scenario worse?
    – Rory Alsop
    Aug 17, 2012 at 16:35
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    Its worse from a liability point of view for a start!
    – Nick
    Aug 20, 2012 at 12:17

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