50 Reasons We Should Fear the Worst from Fukushima
[This is the first in a two part series]
Fukushima's missing melted cores and radioactive gushers continue to fester in secret.
Japan's harsh dictatorial censorship has been matched by a global corporate media blackout aimed—successfully—at keeping Fukushima out of the public eye.
But that doesn't keep the actual radiation out of our ecosystem, our markets ... or our bodies.
Speculation on the ultimate impact ranges from the utterly harmless to the intensely apocalyptic .
But the basic reality is simple: for seven decades, government Bomb factories and privately-owned reactors have spewed massive quantities of unmonitored radiation into the biosphere.
The impacts of these emissions on human and ecological health are unknown primarily because the nuclear industry has resolutely refused to study them.
Indeed, the official presumption has always been that showing proof of damage from nuclear Bomb tests and commercial reactors falls to the victims, not the perpetrators.
And that in any case, the industry will be held virtually harmless.
This “see no evil, pay no damages" mindset dates from the Bombing of Hiroshima to Fukushima to the disaster coming next ... which could be happening as you read this.
Here are 50 preliminary reasons why this radioactive legacy demands we prepare for the worst for our oceans, our planet, our economy ... ourselves.
1. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), the U.S. military initially denied that there was any radioactive fallout, or that it could do any damage. Despite an absence of meaningful data, the victims (including a group of U.S. prisoners of war) and their supporters were officially “discredited" and scorned.
2. Likewise, when Nobel-winners Linus Pauling and Andre Sakharov correctly warned of a massive global death toll from atmospheric Bomb testing, they were dismissed with official contempt ... until they won in the court of public opinion.
3. During and after the Bomb Tests (1946-63), downwinders in the South Pacific and American west, along with thousands of U.S. “atomic vets," were told their radiation-induced health problems were imaginary ... until they proved utterly irrefutable.
4. When British Dr. Alice Stewart proved (1956) that even tiny x-ray doses to pregnant mothers could double childhood leukemia rates, she was assaulted with 30 years of heavily funded abuse from the nuclear and medical establishments.
5. But Stewart's findings proved tragically accurate, and helped set in stone the medical health physics consensus that there is no “safe dose" of radiation ... and that pregnant women should not be x-rayed, or exposed to equivalent radiation.
6. More than 400 commercial power reactors have been injected into our ecosphere with no meaningful data to measure their potential health and environmental impacts, and no systematic global data base has been established or maintained.
7. “Acceptable dose" standards for commercial reactors were conjured from faulty A-Bomb studies begun five years after Hiroshima, and at Fukushima and elsewhere have been continually made more lax to save the industry money.
8. Bomb/reactor fallout delivers alpha and beta particle emitters that enter the body and do long-term damage, but which industry backers often wrongly equate with less lethal external gamma/x-ray doses from flying in airplanes or living in Denver.
9. By refusing to compile long-term emission assessments, the industry systematically hides health impacts at Three Mile Island (TMI), Chernobyl, Fukushima, etc., forcing victims to rely on isolated independent studies which it automatically deems “discredited."
10. Human health damage has been amply suffered in radium watch dial painting, Bomb production, uranium mining/milling/enrichment, waste management and other radioactive work, despite decades of relentless industry denial.
11. When Dr. Ernest Sternglass, who had worked with Albert Einstein, warned that reactor emissions were harming people, thousands of copies of his Low-Level Radiation (1971) mysteriously disappeared from their primary warehouse.
12. When the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) Chief Medical Officer, Dr. John Gofman, urged that reactor dose levels be lowered by 90 percent, he was forced out of the AEC and publicly attacked, despite his status a founder of the industry.
13. A member of the Manhattan Project, and a medical doctor responsible for pioneer research into LDL cholesterol, Gofman later called the reactor industry an instrument of “premeditated mass murder."
14. Stack monitors and other monitoring devices failed at Three Mile Island (1979) making it impossible to know how much radiation escaped, where it went or who it impacted and how.
15. But some 2,400 TMI downwind victims and their families were denied a class action jury trial by a federal judge who said “not enough radiation" was released to harm them, though she could not say how much that was or where it went.
16. During TMI's meltdown, industry advertising equated the fallout with a single chest x-ray to everyone downwind, ignoring the fact that such doses could double leukemia rates among children born to involuntarily irradiated mothers.
17. Widespread death and damage downwind from TMI have been confirmed by Dr. Stephen Wing, Jane Lee and Mary Osbourne, Sister Rosalie Bertell, Dr. Sternglass, Jay Gould, Joe Mangano and others, along with hundreds of anecdotal reports.
18. Radioactive harm to farm and wild animals downwind from TMI has been confirmed by the Baltimore News-American and Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
19. TMI's owner quietly paid out at least $15 million in damages in exchange for gag orders from the affected families, including at least one case involving a child born with Down's Syndrome.
20. Chernobyl's explosion became public knowledge only when massive emissions came down on a Swedish reactor hundreds of miles away, meaning that—as at TMI and Fukushima—no one knows precisely how much escaped or where it went.
21. Fukushima's on-going fallout is already far in excess of that from Chernobyl, which was far in excess of that from Three Mile Island.
22. Soon after Chernobyl blew up (1986), Dr. Gofman predicted its fallout would kill at least 400,000 people worldwide.
23. Three Russian scientists who compiled more than 5,000 studies concluded in 2005 that Chernobyl had already killed nearly a million people worldwide.
24. Children born in downwind Ukraine and Belarus still suffer a massive toll of mutation and illness, as confirmed by a wide range of governmental, scientific and humanitarian organizations.
25. Key low-ball Chernobyl death estimates come from the World Health Organization, whose numbers are overseen by International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations organization chartered to promote the nuclear industry.
26. After 28 years, the reactor industry has still not succeeded in installing a final sarcophagus over the exploded Chernobyl Unit 4, though billions of dollars have been invested.
27. When Fukushima Units 1-4 began to explode, President Obama assured us all the fallout would not come here, and would harm no one, despite having no evidence for either assertion.
28. Since President Obama did that, the U.S. has established no integrated system to monitor Fukushima's fallout, nor an epidemiological data base to track its health impacts ... but it did stop checking radiation levels in Pacific seafood.
29. Early reports of thyroid abnormalities among children downwind from Fukushima, and in North America are denied by industry backers who again say “not enough radiation" was emitted though they don't know how much that might be.
30. Devastating health impacts reported by sailors stationed aboard the USS Ronald Reagan near Fukushima are being denied by the industry and Navy, who say radiation doses were too small to do harm, but have no idea what they were.
31. While in a snowstorm offshore as Fukushima melted, sailors reported a warm cloud passing over the Reagan that brought a “metallic taste" like that described by TMI downwinders and the airmen who dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima.
32. Though it denies the sailors on the Reagan were exposed to enough Fukushima radiation to harm them, Japan (like South Korea and Guam) denied the ship port access because it was too radioactive (it's now docked in San Diego).
33. The Reagan sailors are barred from suing the Navy, but have filed a class action against Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), which has joined the owners at TMI, the Bomb factories, uranium mines, etc., in denying all responsibility.
34. A U.S. military “lessons learned" report from Fukushima's Operation Tomodachi clean-up campaign notes that “decontamination of aircraft and personnel without alarming the general population created new challenges."
35. The report questioned the clean-up because “a true decontamination operations standard for 'clearance' was not set," thereby risking “the potential spread of radiological contamination to military personnel and the local populace."
36. Nonetheless, it reported that during the clean-up, “the use of duct tape and baby wipes was effective in the removal of radioactive particles."
37. In league with organized crime, Tepco is pursuing its own clean-up activities by recruiting impoverished homeless and elderly citizens for “hot" on-site labor, with the quality of their work and the nature of their exposures now a state secret.
38. At least 300 tons of radioactive water continue to pour into the ocean at Fukushima every day, according to official estimates made prior to such data having been made a state secret.
39. To the extent they can be known, the quantities and make-up of radiation pouring out of Fukushima are also now a state secret, with independent measurement or public speculation punishable by up to ten years in prison.
40. Likewise, “There is no systematic testing in the U.S. of air, food and water for radiation," according to University of California (Berkeley) nuclear engineering Professor Eric Norman.
41. Many radioactive isotopes tend to concentrate as they pour into the air and water, so deadly clumps of Fukushima's radiation may migrate throughout the oceans for centuries to come before diffusing, which even then may not render it harmless.
42. Radiation's real world impact becomes even harder to measure in an increasingly polluted biosphere, where interaction with existing toxins creates a synergy likely to exponentially accelerate the damage being done to all living things.
43. Reported devastation among starfish, sardines, salmon, sea lions, orcas and other ocean animals cannot be definitively denied without a credible data base of previous experimentation and monitoring, which does not exist and is not being established.
44. The fact that “tiny" doses of x-ray can harm human embryos portends that any unnatural introduction of lethal radioactive isotopes into the biosphere, however “diffuse," can affect our intertwined global ecology in ways we don't now understand.
45. The impact of allegedly “minuscule" doses spreading from Fukushima will, over time, affect the minuscule eggs of creatures ranging from sardines to starfish to sea lions, with their lethal impact enhanced by the other pollutants already in the sea.
46. Dose comparisons to bananas and other natural sources are absurd and misleading as the myriad isotopes from reactor fallout will impose very different biological impacts for centuries to come in a wide range of ecological settings.
47. No current dismissal of general human and ecological impacts—"apocalyptic" or otherwise—can account over time for the very long half-lives of radioactive isotopes Fukushima is now pouring into the biosphere.
48. As Fukushima's impacts spread through the centuries, the one certainty is that no matter what evidence materializes, the nuclear industry will never admit to doing any damage, and will never be forced to pay for it (see upcoming sequel).
49. Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear navy, warned that it is a form of suicide to raise radiation levels within Earth's vital envelope, and that if he could, he would “sink" all the reactors he helped develop.
50. “Now when we go back to using nuclear power," he said in 1982, “I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it."
As Fukushima deteriorates behind an iron curtain of secrecy and deceit, we desperately need to know what it's doing to us and our planet.
It's tempting to say the truth lies somewhere between the industry's lies and the rising fear of a tangible apocalypse.
In fact, the answers lie beyond.
Defined by seven decades of deceit, denial and a see-no-evil dearth of meaningful scientific study, the glib corporate assurances that this latest reactor disaster won't hurt us fade to absurdity.
Fukushima pours massive, unmeasured quantities of lethal radiation into our fragile ecosphere every day, and will do so for decades to come.
Five power reactors have now exploded on this planet and there are more than 400 others still operating.
What threatens us most is the inevitable next disaster ... along with the one after that ... and then the one after that ...
Pre-wrapped in denial, protected by corporate privilege, they are the ultimate engines of global terror.
Visit EcoWatch's FUKUSHIMA page for more related news on this topic.
Harvey Wasserman edits www.nukefree.org, where petitions calling for the repeal of Japan's State Secrets Act and a global takeover at Fukushima are linked. He is author of SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth.
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
- Scientists Identify Tipping Points for Antarctica Glacier - EcoWatch ›
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.