Friday, December 9, 2011

Do We Need Lynas?

The Fukushima disaster brought Japan, the third largest economy in the world to her knees. What about us? With our meager GDP of US$ 247.7 billion (2010 est.) are we able to handle the clout and the massive compensation in the event of accident? Or should we turn a blind eye on safety and contamination issue, and focus on profit instead? 

Before I begin, I have a few questions regarding rare earth.
What exactly are rarely earth elements?

As defined by IUPAC, rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and
So, what are these minerals for?
Yttrium can produce phosphors that produce light in LED displays and compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Neodymium magnets turn wind turbines. Cerium helps reduce tailpipe emissions.
Cellphone circuit, tablet computers, video games, laptop batteries, flatscreen TVs, and virtually every electronics you have in your home contain rare earth elements.
Rare earths are also found in cars--hybrid and electric cars often contain as many as eight different rare earths. Defense technology; radar system, sonar system, tank engines, navigation systems in smart bombs.

Since they are used so extensively, why are they called rare earths?
They are termed rare earth because of they are typically dispersed, and not a lot are found in concentrated and economically exploitable form. In fact rare earth minerals actually refers to those very rare economically exploitable deposits.
Given all this, it's not surprising that the number of millionaires in China has been increasing over the last couple of years. China produces 97% of the world's rare earth supply, but this number could drop because Beijing may want to reserve the useful metals for domestic use.

Now, let's get back to the Lynas issue.
Given all the benefits of rare earth, why are the people of Kuantan unhappy about Lynas? The plant in Kuantan is actually a rare earth refinery, which, upon completion, would become the largest rare earth refinery in the world. Another best in the world for Malaysia, why not?
Also the plant could provide a plethora of job opportunities as well as elevating the living standard of local population. Most important of all, the revenue generated from the plant could help improve the country's GDP, so we could have another major source of income apart from petroleum. Or better still, we could be a thorn in China's flesh, upsetting them in terms of rare earth production.

But the entire project has a drawback.
Though Lynas will mine the ore in Australia, the radioactive material will be shipped to Kuantan, and that, my friend, is the major concern for the people of Kuantan. Rare earths occur naturally with the radioactive elements thorium and uranium, which, if not stored securely, can leach into groundwater or escape into the air as dust. The refining process requires huge amounts of harsh acids, which also have to be disposed of safely.
One of the reasons China could control the world's rare earth market is because the mines in China couldn't care less about safety and contamination. Be it coal or rare earth, mines in China generally lack necessary safety precaution for miners, and contamination is rampant. Communities around a former rare-earths mining operation in Inner Mongolia, for example, blame hundreds of cases of cancer on leaked radioactive waste from the mine, and local people complain that their hair has gone white and their teeth have fallen out.
Why Lynas have chosen to build the refinery in Kuantan in the first place has also baffled a lot of us. Jon Hykawy, an analyst with the Toronto-based  brokerage Byron Markets, which specializes in rare earths, suspects that Lynas is choosing to refine in Malaysia because it would be easier to acquire a permit in Malaysia and most importantly, it is a lot cheaper than refining in Australia.

The thing is, we have had a rare earth refinery in the past. Unknown to many people, Mitsubishi Chemical's rare earth refinery built in Bukit Merah was

closed in 1992 after years of sometimes violent demonstrations by citizens. Local residents blamed the refinery for birth defects and eight leukemia cases within five years in a community of 11,000 — after many years with no leukemia
Lai Kwan prepares to bathe her son, Cheah Kok Leong, who was born with severe mental disabilities. She believes that his condition is related to the radioactive exposure she received while working at the Mitsubishi Chemical's refinery in Bukit Merah. Image: Rahman Roslan for The New York Times
The company has quietly agreed to clean up the site, but even after 19 years the cleaning process is still ongoing--and that's after the refinery closed without any accidents.

"It's safe--it's built by an international team of builders and engineers"--International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 30th June 2011.

No it's not when there's leakage--the risk is especially high when you're dealing with something dubbed "the largest radioactive material refinery on earth". Weather, mismanagement or human error could easily turn a profitable business into a life-threatening investment. The Fukushima nuclear crisis, for example, was caused by an earthquake. Unpredictable. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year was caused by human error. Similarly unpredictable (though maybe avoidable). And the Chernobyl disaster, which was caused by human error as well as design features. Again, unpredictable.
The Fukushima disaster brought Japan, the third largest economy in the world to her knees. What about us? With our meager GDP of US$ 247.7 billion (2010 est.) are we able to handle the clout and the massive compensation in the event of accident? Or should we turn a blind eye on safety and contamination issue, and focus on profit instead?

For me personally the entire project embodies a deeply resented scheme derived by rapacious politicians, and seriously I should actually re-quote myself : the refinery improves our politicians' GDP, not the country's.

So the question remains: do we need Lynas? If an accident happens, are we ready to face the consequences?
The people of Germany recently campaigned against the government's action of accepting nuclear waste from France. The people tried to stop the train carrying nuclear waste from France by laying flat on the railway.
They are not ready to face nuclear waste, how could we?



  1. I started reading with some hope of a good read, but when you throw in comparisons to Chernobyl and Fukushima and Chinese mines you just show your ignorance like not so honourable MP Fuziah. Don't you think Lynascorp have proven they operate way better than the Chinese with how they have run their mine so far? No injuries, no pollution, no nothing at all! They've proven already safety is a core value. This plant is a chemical refinery, with thorium bg product which is way less risky than a nuclear plant. Oh, well... I guess you can shut down all other chemical processing industry in Malaysia also..

  2. well, I appreciate your point there. I just personally think that we're not really ready to face such a challenge with our current ability to run things around. And we should bear in mind that everything is perfect until an accident happens.

    As for chemical processing industry in Malaysia, as a researcher myself, conventional chemicals are rather easy to dispose via chemical interactions. Nuclear waste, however, is a totally different story. Once the rare earth is stripped from thorium and uranium, the thorium and uranium will have to be properly disposed of. And we all know that thorium and uranium have 14billion and 4.5billion years of half life respectively. And the radiation could penetrate concrete and contaminate everything.

    According to nytimes, the mitsubishi cleanup will require robots and workers in protective gear to move more than 80,000 steel barrels of radioactive waste from a concrete bunker. They will mix it with cement and gypsum, and then permanently store it in the hilltop repository.

    There are still works to be done, why ask for more?



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