Crikey Clarifier: what’s all the fuss about rare earths?
A New Zealand-born Australian resident has been arrested and released in Malaysia for protesting against a rare earths processing plant. What are rare earths? Why are they dangerous? Crikey intern Rachel Clayton has the answers.
Bondi resident Natalie Lowrey was suddenly released without charge on Friday night after five days’ detention in a Malaysian prison. Lowrey, who was born in New Zealand, was arrested last week in Kuantan, Malaysia, for protesting against the processing of rare earths by Australian minerals giant Lynas Corp. We delve into some of the issues surrounding the case.
What are rare earths?
Rare earths are chemical elements found in the earth’s crust that are vital to many modern technologies, including electronics such as speakers, computers, hybrid cars and wind turbines. Rare earths have unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties that help technologies perform more efficiently. They are particularly valuable for use in smartphones, and are in high demand.
What is Lynas Corp, and what is it doing in Malaysia?
Lynas’ rare earth project has sparked protests in Australia and Malaysia over fears about possible negative health, environmental and economic impacts once the plant begins its operation, as it will produce radioactive material as a waste product. Although the rare earths are extracted in Western Australia, the potentially hazardous processing will take place in Malaysia.
Is there any evidence processing rare earths is dangerous?
Mitsubishi Chemicals Asian Rare Earths, a plant in Bukit Merah, Malaysia, was shut down in the 1992 after at least eight cases of leukaemia and a sudden surge in birth defects and miscarriages in the area. The plant was finally closed after an eight-year battle and is currently undergoing the largest clean-up in the rare earth industry at a cost of US$100 million. Cleaning up requires digging up the entire area of contamination and entombing it inside a mountain.
A spokesperson from Lynas told Crikey: “The Asian Rare Earth plant used the waste from tin mining as its raw material. Lynas raw material contains naturally low levels of thorium, which are 30-40 times lower than rare earth concentrates from tin mine tailings. By all international standards, the Lynas raw material is classified as safe, non-toxic and non-hazardous.”
But Dr David KL Quek, former president of the Malaysia Medical Association, has said:
“Thorium is an acknowledged waste product from the planned Lynas refinery of rare earth ores. Due to the various refining processes thorium will be enriched and concentrated to levels which could reach quantities that are difficult to contain or be safely sequestrated.
“Based on the preliminary Environmental Impact Agency report, thorium residues would lead to a sizeable radioactivity dose of some 62 Becquerel per gram. For 106 tonnes this would be an enormous quantity of radioactive residual thorium.”
Wastes from production will include radioactive thorium and uranium and their radioactive decay products such as radium and radon. Australian authorities have explicitly refused to allow the wastes to be shipped back to Australia for safe disposal.
The Malaysian government has been more open to rare earths processing than the Australian government.
Phua Kai Lit, an associate professor of the Jeffery Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences at Monash University in Malaysia, told Crikey: “The Prime Minister, as well as the Chief Minister of the state of Pahang, are both strong supporters of the project. Similarly, political appointees such as the various ministers from ministries involved with the project echo the government’s line. The head of the main regulatory body, the Atomic Energy Licensing Board, also echoes the government’s line.
“The government has been criticised for granting a two-year TOL [temporary operating licence] in spite of no detailed environmental impact assessment or health impact assessment. Only a preliminary environmental impact assessment was carried out,” he said.
A spokesperson told Crikey Lynas plans to recycle the waste from the LAMP refining process into co-products such as plaster boards and cement. Two out of three of these products have been certified as non-radioactive by the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board.
The AELB is in charge of approving and monitoring radioactive industries and received an undisclosed sum by Lynas Corp in 2011. However the AELB denied the sum was a requirement.