Cleaning Up One Of The Soviet Union’s Messes

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably seen parts of this story. A longer version was posted for a while, but then Stanford University cleaned out all websites that used Drupal, so it’s gone now.

This week I refound a video that I like because it explains a lot about the Silmet rare-earths refining plant at Sillamäe, Estonia.

I became involved with Sillamäe in 1998, when NATO wanted Los Alamos to hold more of its Advanced Research Workshops with the recently independent states that came out of the Soviet Union. We held an ARW in Tallinn in October 1998 on how to remediate the kilometer-long tailings pond from the plant.

The plant had refined uranium to yellowcake up until 1986, when the USSR and the US realized that tens of thousands of nuclear weapons were too many. Then it switched over to rare earths, which require much the same equipment for processing. The video shows some of that equipment.

The waste was dumped in the tailings pond. Its dam was maybe 25 meters from the Baltic Sea, and rain percolated through it to deliver heavy metals, some radioactive, to the sea. Here’s what that looked like on my first visit in January 1998. There was also concern that the entire thing could slip into the sea.

My Estonian partner, Tõnis Kaasik, used the book we developed from the presentations at the ARW as part of his argument to the EU to help fund the cleanup. The EU provided €25 million, and the government of Estonia provided the rest. The cleanup was completed in 2009.

From the start, the Estonian government wanted economic development to be part of the plan. Sillamäe is in the northeastern part of the country, where many Russian speakers live. Unemployment there soared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Development of a port was therefore part of the plan.

The video is from 2011, and thus shows the port in an early stage of development. The port has a website with a great overview photo of the area. You can see the plant to the left of the green area, which is the remediated tailings pond. The port has recently added a truck stop for truckers headed into Russia via Narva, about 20 kilometers away. I don’t know what Russia’s attack on Ukraine has had on truck traffic.

Because rare earths have become important to modern electronics, there’s been a great deal of concern about China’s role in supplying them. Refining them can be a dirty business, but part of the remediation work was improving the processes at the plant to minimize wastes. The tailings pond is no longer needed, although some wastes still are produced. I keep wondering why nobody has looked at what Silmet is doing to build more plants.

MolyCorp owned Silmet for a short time, but they went bankrupt for other reasons and sold the plant. They gave us that nice video, though. The corporation is now NPM SIlmet OÜ.

I’m pleased to have had a part in the project and proud of the great job my Estonian partners have done.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

One comment

  1. Jonny · 11 Days Ago

    Oh wow, that’s interesting that rare-earths require similar processing equipment as uranium yellowcake. A bit concerning for those of us who with PTSD about false claims of WMDs as a justification for war, and how that might be used again. I’ll have to read up more on rare-earths and how they’re made, as it seems they’ll be increasingly important geo-politically going forward. With a limited global supply, rare earths will become coveted much the way oil has been for the past century, with all the associated political & military maneuvering to control them. I didn’t realize Estonia has rare-earths—that will be both a blessing and a curse for them. Many fortunes to be made, but plenty of characters—many unsavory—banging on their door to get them. My understanding is rare-earths were also discovered in Ukraine, which Russia seems to be interested in. I say that because despite the cultural reasons we keep hearing for the war, Putin is destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure & people, so that’s not what he’s after. It’s something else. I watch the ruthlessly territorial hummingbirds in my backyard guard their feeder, and this seems similar: an ugly struggle for control of limited resources.

    And then there’s China which is positioned to dominate global electronics manufacturing in the 21st century. Their reluctance to definitively pick sides re: Ukraine seems to be an attempt to maintain access to resources regardless of who prevails.

    Africa will be interesting to watch too regarding who maneuvers control of rare-earths there. If colonial history is any indicator, it won’t be Africans. My eye is on China.


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