Crikey Clarifier: what’s all the fuss about rare earths? http://www.crikey.com.au/2014/07/01/crikey-clarifier-whats-all-the-fuss-about-rare-earths/ by Crikey Intern 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 Corporation Ltd is an ASX 100 listed company based in Sydney, Australia. It is currently constructing the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP), a rare earth processing plant at Gebeng, near Kuantan, 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.
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.
(New York, N.Y.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has added the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company site in the Ridgewood section of Queens, New York to the federal Superfund list of hazardous waste sites. The soil and nearby sewers were contaminated by radioactive material from past industrial activities at the site. Testing indicates that there is no immediate threat to nearby residents, employees or customers of businesses in the affected area along Irving and Cooper Avenues. Since exposure to the radioactive contamination may pose a threat to health in the long-term, in December 2013, the EPA took action to reduce people’s potential exposure to the radiation and address the potential health risks from the site.
The now-defunct Wolff-Alport Chemical Company operated from 1920 until 1954, processing imported monazite sand and extracting rare earth metals. Monazite contains approximately 6% to 8% thorium, which is radioactive. Radiation can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer such as cancer of the lung or pancreas.
“By placing the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company site on the Superfund list, the EPA can address the contamination to protect people’s health in the long-term,” said Judith A. Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. he Wolff-Alport Chemical Company site includes 1125 to 1139 Irving Avenue and 1514 Cooper Avenue in Ridgewood, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. During its years of operation, the facility occupied three structures and two yard areas at 1127 Irving Avenue. The company did not operate out of 1125 Irving Avenue or 1514 Cooper Avenue, but those properties were affected by the contamination. Today the site includes six parcels of land with five buildings that house several small businesses, office space and warehouses. Until 1947, the company disposed of thorium waste in the sewer and on its property. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission ordered the company to stop those practices in 1947.
The EPA assisted New York State and New York City in conducting radiological surveys in the area. These surveys identified waste material and radioactivity throughout the property, beneath adjacent public sidewalks and streets and in nearby sewers above levels expected to be found in a comparable urban area. The EPA, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Department of Health are working together to reduce potential long-term exposure to radiation from the site.
Beginning in August 2012, the EPA took samples to assess the site and determine what immediate cleanup work would be necessary. The EPA used the results of this sampling to take steps to protect people from exposure in the short-term. At Intermediate School 384, radioactive gas was coming from a hole in an unoccupied storage area. The hole was sealed with concrete and follow-up sampling results showed levels below the action level established by the technical experts. At the Terra Nova Construction Company, the EPA installed a mitigation system that reduced radiation levels to below the action level.
Additional EPA actions included:……….To learn more about the Wolff-Alport site, please visit:http://www.epa.gov/region02/waste/wolff/index.html.http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/0/609e310b78c3ef7a85257cd20055a13a?OpenDocument
Whole villages between the city of Baotou and the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia have been evacuated and resettled to apartment towers elsewhere after reports of high cancer rates and other health problems associated with the numerous rare earth refineries there.
China Tries to Clean Up Toxic Legacy of Its Rare Earth Riches NYT By KEITH BRADSHER : October 22, 2013 TIANJIN, China — In northern China, near the Mongolian border, radioactively contaminated leaks from two decades of rare earth refining have been slowly trickling underground toward the Yellow River, a crucial water source for 150 million people. In Jiangxi province in south-central China, the national government has seized control of rare earth mining districts from provincial officials after finding widespread illegal strip-mining of rare earth metals.
And in Guangdong province in southeastern China, regulators are struggling to repair rice fields and streams destroyed by powerful acids and other runoff from open-pit rare earth mines that are often run by violent organized crime syndicates.
Communities scattered across China face heavy environmental damage that accumulated through two decades of nearly unregulated rare earth mining and refining. While the Chinese government has begun spending billions of dollars to clean up the damage, the environmental impact is becoming an international trade issue, with a World Trade Organization panel in Geneva expected to issue a crucial draft report on Wednesday……. The rare earth case “will be a landmark case in terms of both export restrictions and the environment,” said James Bacchus, the former two-term chairman of the W.T.O. appeals tribunal in Geneva. Continue reading
Residents though remain highly sceptical and opposition candidates running on an anti-Lynas platform won a raft of seats around the plant, in the May general election.
Lynas lost more than $107 million last financial year, and has informed the market that it’s set to report another quarter of reduced output, as it continues to work on the plant’s operational issues.
Deutsche Bank’s Chris Terry says the company’s share price is now around 40 cents, compared with its peak value of $2.30 in early 2011
Australian rare earths miner Lynas Corporation sparks fresh anger in Malaysia ABC News, Kate Arnott for Newsline 9 Oct 13Australian rare earths miner Lynas Corporation is refusing to publicly disclose the location of a permanent waste storage facility for its processing plant in Malaysia.
Earlier this year, Lynas started commercial production of rare earths, which are used in a wide range of high tech equipment, but the plant on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia has been plagued by operational problems. Continue reading
Lynas’ waste plans a toxic pipe dream Aliran, 19 December 2012 by Wendy Bacon ” ……While Lynas says it is confident in the current by-product plans, they are yet to be tested. Dr Peter Karamoskas, who has been a nuclear radiologist for 13 years and represents the Australian public on the Radiation Safety Committee of Australia’s nuclear safety agency, shares none of that confidence.
Speaking on his own behalf, Karamoskas said that to be safe more than a million tons of WLP residue with a radioactive reading of 6Bq have to be mixed with five times the amount of aggregate to reduce its reading to 1Bq. While he said that a similar process had been used in the Netherlands, the waste was far less radioactive, sitting near 1Bq, which is the threshold for safety.
Karamoskas said it has never been used with material with the Lamp WLP reading of 6Bq. He says that it is extremely unlikely to be a long term solution from a safety or economic point of view: “If this was all ready to go they would be trumpeting it in the public arena … already it looks slippery. If this was possible wouldn’t most countries around the world be doing it?” He thinks it is extremely unlikely that the road mix could be imported, other than to a country with “lax standards” because it would breach international best practice standards. Continue reading
The IAEA also recommended that Lynas proceed no further until it had filed comprehensive plans for the permanent disposal of waste, decommissioning of the plant and remediation of the site at the end of its life.
Lynas’ waste plans a toxic pipe dream Aliran, 19 December 2012 Scientists and community leaders are concerned about radioactive waste from Lynas’ Malaysian plant but the company representative who took Wendy Bacon’s questions brushed off the criticism. This is the second of two articles about Lynas by Wendy Bacon.Read the first here.http://aliran.com/11005.html
Australian rare earth company Lynas has always known it had a waste problem.
It plans to process rare earth concentrate, imported from its mine at Mount Weld in Western Australia, at its Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (Lamp) in Malaysia. It will not only produce rare earths for export but also a huge amount of waste, including more than a million cubic metres of low level radioactive material. Continue reading
Lynas’ waste plans a toxic pipe dream Aliran, 19 December 2012 Scientists and community leaders are concerned about radioactive waste from Lynas’ Malaysian plant but the company representative who took Wendy Bacon’s questions brushed off the criticism. This is the second of two articles about Lynas by Wendy Bacon “………Shutting down the critics
New Matilda asked to interview Lynas Executive Chairperson Nick Curtis but he was not available. Instead we interviewed a Lynas spokesperson who insists that the waste products of the Lamp project are “not hazardous in any way”. He refers to the safety record of Lynas which in “all of its constructions … has been achieved with zero lost time injury”.
When New Matilda suggested that problems are more likely to arise in the long term, even 20 or 30 years away, he replied: “I would be lying if I categorically tell you there is no risk in 20 or 30 years time from anything. What I can tell you is that the unanimous conclusion of all of the scientific experts from all of the different organisations that have investigated this material and everything else is that there will be no discernible risk for the public or anyone else from this facility.”
But this is far from true.
For example, in April this year, the National Toxic Network (NTN), a community-based network “working to ensure a toxic-free future for all”, published a preliminary assessment of the waste steam of Lynas’s Lamp project. It was prepared by Lee Bell, a qualified environmental scientist with 20 years experience in analysis of industrial process plants, groundwater monitoring and contaminated sites. He co-chaired the Core Consultative Committee on Waste under the former Labor government in Western Australia, which reformed the state’s hazardous waste sector. Readers of his 29 page NTN report (pdf), which was reviewed by another scientist, are likely to be concerned about the company’s environmental plans.
I asked Lynas’ spokesperson about the NTN report: “Whatever you think of it, it [the report] is a solid document. It appears to be academically referenced and it also appears to have had some form of review. If you read it, on a number of scores, you would be concerned?”…..
The Lynas spokesman rejected an NTN claim that Lamp’s location on a reclaimed swamp with a high rainfall is relevant to disposal of low level radioactive waste. Asked if he was aware it was a “marshy site”, he said, “I have no idea”. He explained that although there is a pristine fishing village and beach at Kuantan three and a half kilometres away on the coast, “if there is a risk there, it is much wider than just Lynas because the Lamp is in a petrochemical zone”. In fact, the site is on a reclaimed peat swamp……..http://aliran.com/11018.html
Lynas will be in court in Malaysia on 19 December. The Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL) campaignerswill be appealing against the Kuantan High Court decision to lift its stay on the company being able to exercise its rights to proceed under the temporary licence.
The toxic waste that’s not in Australia’s backyard http://aliran.com/11005.html 18 Dec 12, Australian-owned company Lynas is quietly shipping rare earth to a processing plant in Malaysia – without a firm plan in place to dispose of dangerous radioactive waste. Wendy Bacon reports.
If a manufacturing plant involving radioactive materials moved into your community, one of the first things you would ask is, “what’s going to happen to the waste?”
This is exactly how residents of Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast reacted when the Australian company Lynas announced plans to build Lamp, the world’s biggest rare earth processing plant in their area.
Several years later, they have no clear answer. Indeed last week, while the plant that will use concentrate imported from Lynas’s rare earth mine at Mount Weld in Western Australia was finally ramping up for production, the Malaysian government and the company were in direct conflict about what would happen to the waste. Continue reading
The Anti-Lynas movement: Are we being unreasonable? – Jeyakumar Devaraj, The Malaysian Insider , 13 Dec 12 Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj is a PSM central committee member and MP for Sungai Siput.”……..The IAEA is fully behind the drive to build nuclear reactors. They say that these are safe. That we have the technology to ensure that nothing goes wrong. But we have had accidents inSellafield (UK), the Three Miles Reactor (USA), Chernobyl (USSR), and this was the worst until Fukushima (Japan) occurred! How safe are they really? But the IAEA is still all for Malaysia embarking on building 2 nuclear reactors – at a cost of more than RM 20 billion! How objective is the IAEA? Continue reading
Ten months have passed, and a safe permanent depository has yet to be identified and agreed upon by all parties. Instead Lynas is still talking of rendering the waste “safe”. Continue reading
“The situation clearly calls for international policy initiatives to minimize the seemingly bizarre situation of spending large amounts of technology, time, energy and money to acquire scarce metals from the mines and then throwing them away after a single use.”
Yale Researchers Call for Specialty Metals Recycling http://environment.yale.edu/news/article/yale-researchers-call-for-specialty-metals-recycling/ 25 Sept 12 An international policy is needed for recycling scarce specialty metals that are critical in the production of consumer goods,
according to Yale researchers in Science.
“A recycling rate of zero for specialty metals is alarming when we consider that their use is growing quickly,” said co-author Barbara Reck, a research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
Specialty metals, which include rare earth elements such as indium, gallium and germanium, account for more than 30 of the 60 metals in the periodic table. Because they are used in small amounts for very precise technological purposes, such as red phosphors, high-strength magnets, thin-film solar cells and computer chips, recovery can be so technologically and economically challenging that the attempt is seldom made. Continue reading
The world will witness one of the biggest civil disobedience events in this nation”
Mr Ibrahim has demanded that Australians ”hear the frustrations of Malaysians” over the project.
First Weld war looms – Malaysians mobilise to fight Lynas plant, The Age, September 13, 202 Lindsay MurdochACTIVISTS are planning a multi-pronged attack to try to stop the Australian miner Lynas Corp opening a rare earths
processing plant in Malaysia.
Opposition parties, led by Anwar Ibrahim, are also planning to make the $230 million plant a key issue of the country’s national elections, which must be held by April next year. They have vowed to shut the plant if they oust the government. Continue reading
40 years later, toxic waste still haunts pockets of DuPage County Thorium cleanup nears finish line, but federal funds are in doubt January 21, 2012|By Erin Meyer, Chicago Tribune reporter Lurking beneath the surface of the West Branch of the DuPage River are the remnants of radioactive contamination left behind by a
factory that was shuttered almost four decades ago.
The Rare Earths Facility in West Chicago not only was a major employer in its heyday, but also became the site of a large mound of discarded radioactive waste that locals called Mount Thorium. The notorious impact the radiation from the factory had on the area eventually led to lengthy cleanups that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The final phases of efforts to remediate the waste from Rare Earths are in sight, but officials say funding sources they have relied on in the past have dried up or are becoming increasingly uncertain due to changing priorities and congressional squabbling.
About $21 million is needed for work scheduled this year on the West Branch of the DuPage River and an adjacent creek, officials say. But more than a third of that is still up in the air….. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-01-21/news/ct-met-superfund-cleanup-20120118_1_thorium-cleanup-kress-creek-radioactive-waste
Protests Promised Over License for Malaysia Rare Earth Plant NYT, By LIZ GOOCH KUALA , 6 Sept, LUMPUR — Activists who have waged a lengthy campaign against a rare earth refinery in Malaysia refused to back down Thursday after the authorities gave the Australian company behind the project the green light to proceed.
One group has vowed to blockade the port in the Malaysian town of Kuantan, near the plant, if the company, Lynas, tries to import raw earth materials from Australia.
“We are prepared to paralyze the whole port until the raw materials leave our port,” said Wong Tack, chairman of the group, Himpunan Hijau. “The world will witness one of the biggest civil disobedience events in this nation.”…. Lynas said that it would address the “principal cause of the community anxiety” — what to do with the radioactive byproducts from the plant — by turning the material into “processed co-products” for use mainly in manufacturing, like materials for roads and buildings. The materials would be exported, the company said. The company’s statement did not say to which countries it might export the products……
activists are not satisfied that the plant, estimated to cost 2.5 billion ringgit, or $802 million, will be safe.
“We will not allow an ounce of raw material to reach our shores,” said Mr. Wong, adding that Himpunan Hijau would recruit “thousands of people” to block the port 24 hours a day when the raw earth material arrived.
“We need to send the strongest warning to Lynas — don’t even dream about operation. This is an all-out war,” he said.
Another group, Save Malaysia Stop Lynas, said it was considering filing for a court injunction to try to stop the plant from operating.
Tan Bun Teet, the group’s chairman, said Save Malaysia Stop Lynas had already obtained leave from the courts for a judicial review of both the Atomic Energy Licensing Board’s approval of the temporary operating license and of the decision by the minister of science, technology and innovation not to revoke the license.
He insisted that the board should have waited for the outcome of those judicial reviews before issuing the license…… The committee’s findings — that Lynas should receive the license because it had fulfilled legal provisions and standards more stringent than international standards — were dismissed by activists who claimed the committee was an attempt to “whitewash” the issue. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/07/business/global/protests-promised-over-license-for-malaysia-rare-earth-plant.html?_r=1
Recycling Rare Earths Stop Lynas, 11 July 12, “…….We know that human induced climate change is a fact. Solutions to cut carbon emissions include energy efficiency, hybrid cars and renewable technologies like wind power which all need rare earths. But it is a dangerous path we are on when we continue with the ‘business as usual’ moto – instead we must continue to challenge the influence of governments and corporations that do not take people’s needs into account by protecting human rights and the environment for future generations.
One partial solution to the negative impacts of rare earth mining and processing would be to reduce consumption and increase the reuse and recycling rates of rare earth elements. Currently the recycling rate for most rare earth metals is around 1% or less . Japan is exploring increased recycling of rare earths fromelectronic waste . If the price of the final materials included the true social and environmental costs of rare earth mining, the incentive to recycle and dig up less would increase.
We must be concerned not only with how our use of rare earths contributes to their depletion, but also how pollution from the production, processing and use of rare earths should be considered in the context of our use – particularly because rare earths are recyclable. http://stoplynas.org/recycle-rare-earths/
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