A Battle for Rare Earth

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A Battle for Rare Earth

Demand for rare earths is soaring, but Australian firm Lynas is having problems with its planned Malaysian factory.

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.