A Battle for Rare Earth
Image Credit: Grassroots Reconciliation Group

A Battle for Rare Earth


Malaysia’s relationship with the West has been on the up in recent years. Its handling of thorny issues like people smuggling, counter terrorism and nuclear proliferation in countries including Iran is a significant shift from the unnecessary belligerence that flourished under long-serving leader Mohammad Mahathir.

The result has been improved goodwill all round. One issue, however, has emerged that will test that goodwill with Australia. The battle is over rare earths, the toxic by-products it produces and the Malaysian home one Australian company would like to find for it.

Australian miner Lynas is constructing a rare earths processing factory in Malaysia for the ore it digs out of its Mt Weld mine. Rare earths are used in a range of high tech goods from fibre optic cables to sonar systems, mobile phones, and electric cars to light bulbs.

China accounts for 95 percent of global production, and prices are soaring after Beijing clamped down on illegal production and export quotas, substantially lifting demand for rare earths produced at Mt Weld in West Australia and Mountain Pass in California. One report estimates the rare earth market will be worth $6 billion by 2015.

But the neighbours aren’t happy, and a series of protests and newspaper campaigns in Malaysia have prompted the government to call in the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has asked a panel to review radiation health and safety aspects of the $240 million Lynas processing project.

The plant at Kuantan, Pahang, was due to start operations in November, but could be scrapped if the panel casts an unfavourable light on the project, which as protestors like to point out, isn’t being built in Australia.

Rare earths contain 17 chemically similar elements that aren’t radioactive. However, rare earth deposits often contain a radioactive element called thorium.

Rare earth from Mt Wled is expected to contain 0.17 percent of thorium, and has been described as somewhere between lead and uranium. In Australia, the product isn’t classified as dangerous, but politicians have insisted the material be shipped in sealed bags from Mt Weld to the port in Fremantle.

One Australian academic is concerned about the levels of exposure some workers have had to rare earths. Gavin Mudd, a senior lecturer for Environmental Engineering at Monash University, Melbourne, says the main point is that radiation exposure is cumulative and so adds up over time.

He also raised doubts on the thorium content as claimed by Lynas, saying that claims that rare earth ore imported from Australia had a low thorium content were a way to downplay its significance.

Toxicologist T. Jayabalan agreed, saying supporters of the Malaysian project were using the term ‘low-level radiation’ in an attempt to allay fears, but the fact remains that it’s still a form of radiation and it is carcinogenic.

Given the world’s distaste for all things nuclear following the havoc caused at Japan’s nuclear power plants in the wake of the March earthquake and tsunami, Lynas is probably facing an uphill battle if it expects to secure any goodwill for its processing plant.

A Malaysian
June 3, 2011 at 16:20

IAEA? What a joke? Malaysians are aware that the younger brother ( Dato´ Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob adalah Board Of Governor IAEA (2009-2010) of Adnan Yaacob (The Chief Minister who is defending this deadly project) are the ex-boss of the so called IAEA panels. They assured that the plant is safe without even stepping their foots into Gebeng Industrial Area… You called this independent expert?

Solomon, since it is so safe, will you recommend Lynas to move to your backyard? You have no right to talk cock here as you are not the one who will suffer from the radition. Period

June 3, 2011 at 13:26

This whole Lynas in Malaysia issue is strongly tied to the ruling government. Lynas declared recently that it has an agreement with the government of Malaysia to fund certain waste disposal research projects. Based on previous experiences, these ‘projects’ are probably just pieces of proposals drawn up as formality. God save Malaysia and its people because not Lynas or the Malaysian Government cares about the side effects. The ruling government has even sent thugs to intimidate the peaceful protesters at a popular tourist spot a few days ago. You judge the level of commitment the government has in getting a fair assessment of the dangers involved.

June 2, 2011 at 16:59

Understand the geology.

Are you a geologist?

The Thorium content is unbelivably low in this deposit [1].

Hence why it is being mined.

There is no threat to radiation exposure WHAT SO EVER.

[1] – B.G. Lottermoser, Rare-earth element mineralisation within the Mt. Weld carbonatite laterite, Western Australia
Weblink – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/002449379090022S

June 2, 2011 at 08:10

1) If the IAEA panel casts a negative light on the plant — it will not ( repeat WILL NOT ) be scrapped as you erroneously point out in your misleading article. In the event of casting ” negative light ” the president of Malaysia will review the entire project and try to address any remaining issues with government officials as well as with locals of Kuantang. He specifically stated the latter when recently questioned by a press member.

2) when asked about potential health hazards such as radio active exposure to the public at large etc an IAEA member responded “there are other plants like this one in other parts of the world and are being carefully monitored and regulated ” Translation = no “uphill battle” as you erroneously point out in your flawed article.

You are probably a “greenie” trying to pass as a legitimate journalist.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief