Down To Rare Earths


Residents of the coastal town of Kuantan will travel today across the peninsula to Kuala Lumpur — and they’ll end their journey on foot. Protesters will walk to the Australian High Comission in Malaysia to protest against an Australian-owned rare earth refinery which, if plans go ahead, will begin operation in September. Already, civil movements and political parties have been mobilised through social media and public gatherings.

The protestors want to stop the development of Lynas’ Advanced Materials Plant until details about waste management are made clear. Their job is being made much more difficult thanks to the forces of global trade. Changing supply dynamics of rare earths has made pushing the refinery project forward even more desirable for Lynas.

Why are rare earths so important? They are crucial elements to the manufacture of a host of technologies, ranging from smart phones to smart bombs, from electric car batteries to wind turbines.

As The Economist’s science and technology blogger puts it:

"What makes the rare earths so special is the way they can react with other elements to get results that neither could achieve alone. They are used, a pinch here and a pinch there, to make powerful permanent magnets for lightweight electric motors, phosphors for colour television and flat-panel displays, catalysts for cars and chemical refineries, rechargeable batteries for hybrid and electric cars, generators for wind turbines, as well as numerous optical, medical and military devices. To give just one example, every Toyota Prius has over 25 pounds of lanthanum in its nickel-metal hydride battery."

The global supply of rare earths has been disrupted as China, the world’s biggest producer of rare earths, has been announcing export reductions since 2009. In fact, as demand has continued to rise, China has cut exports from 50,000 tons a year to just 8000.
Now the big manufacturers are desperately looking for alternative suppliers.

All of which is why the Lynas plant in Kuantan is just what the doctor ordered. Once it starts operations, the plant looks set to meet one-third of the world’s demand for rare earth. Lynas’s mine at Mount Weld in Western Australia will supply the refinery.
And as the price of rare earth elements rises, Lynas looks to have its money on a sure bet. In July last year, China was selling its processed rare earth metals at US$14,405 on average. In February this year, China’s rare earth exports burst through the US$100,000-per-ton mark — that’s a 900 per cent increase.

Why are the residents so concerned? The process of rare earth refinery has radioactive by-products, including thorium — which is why Lynas can’t process the mineral closer to the mine in Australia. Residents are concerned about the cost to the environment and to the health of citizens of dumping huge amounts of radioactive waste. According to Friends of the Earth, a full environmental assessment for the site has not yet been released.

"It is all about trade," toxicologist and public health expert Dr T. Jayabalan told New Matilda, adding that public health and community well-being has never been in the equation. He said the Lynas project resembled the Asian Rare Earth plant operated by Mitsubishi in the Malaysian town of Bukit Merah, near Ipoh — which is still undergoing a massive $100 million clean up project.

The storage of thorium was banned by the Japanese government in 1971. So when Mitsubishi was looking for a site to refine rare earths, it had to look overseas. It started operations in Bukit Merah in the early 1980s with with a few Malaysian partners.

"Mitsubishi took advantage of the non-existence of authorities checking licencing facilities of this nature in Malaysia," said Jayabalan. "Lynas has a similar modus operandi. It would not be cost-effective to produce in Australia, and more importantly there is lax enforcement in Malaysia and so Lynas is able to operate here.

"The Australian government is silent knowing full well that the rare earth ore will be brought from Mount Weld in Australia to be processed in Gebeng and the finished products will be exported overseas while the radioactive waste dumped in Gebeng," he added.

Bukit Merah is now the site of what may be one of Asia’s largest toxic waste clean-ups, thanks to a factory that produced an average of 2000 tonnes of radioactive waste annually in the course of its operations. The Lynas Advanced Material Plant will, it is projected, produce 20,000 tonnes of radioactive waste a year. This means the plant will be producing 10 times more than the factory that was closed down 20 years ago.

Lynas has invested over $200 million in the plant, which it intends to complete by September this year. A March update on the progress of the refinery works posted by Lynas didn’t mention local opposition. The company projects the plant will generate some $2.4 billion in annual revenue by 2013.


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