KUALA LUMPUR — October 4, 2018: Contrary to its name, rare-earth metals can actually be found abundantly in the Earth’s crust but what makes it “rare”, however, is its messy extraction and costly refining processes.
The compound is used in almost everything, from computers to cars, mobile devices and every other technology we rely on in our daily lives. One can even find it in the batteries of hybrid cars.
With a yearly output of 105,000 metric tonne (MT) or 97 per cent of the global output, China is the world’s largest rare-earth miner, with Australia second but mining only 20,000 MT.
Australia’s mined minerals are then shipped to Malaysia for refining but recent statements have cast a gloomy outlook towards the status quo after the Malaysian government decided to review the operations of the only rare-earth refining plant outside of China, in Gebeng, Kuantan.
News on the review is hardly shocking as the new government elected on May 9, has politicians who led the 2012 protest against the plant owned by Lynas Corporation Limited.
Throughout the protest, Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh of PKR, who has been appointed to head the review committee, claimed that the locals could risk radioactive illnesses and cancer because of the plant.
The more passionate critics went as far as to insist that every living thing within the vicinity of the plant’s treated waste disposal site – a river – would grotesquely mutate but nothing even close to this has happened.
Environmental and health hazards were the staple concerns raised by detractors of rare-earth mining, especially after it was revealed how badly the mining of these minerals had polluted a region in China.
In Malaysia, the anti-Lynas group often cited the radioactive poisoning at Bukit Merah in the 90s as their main point of contention.
In that incident, locals blamed a now closed refining plant for birth defects and leukemia cases during the five years the plant operated.
While Fuziah, who is a deputy minister of religious affairs, had recently downplayed her anti-Lynas rhetoric, the other member of the committee, Bentong MP Wong Tack, had three weeks ago hit back at the Australian High Commission for defending Lynas. The strange appointments of only these two to the committee were announced by Energy, Green Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin
Lynas had consistently reassured the public on the safety levels of its operations. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had reviewed the plant’s operations in 2011 and 2014 and rated the plant as intrinsically low-risk.
That review team comprised experts on radiation protection (occupational, public and environment – including monitoring system, waste management, decommissioning and environmental remediation, transport and safety assessment) from Canada, India, the Netherlands, South Africa, the UK and IAEA, read IAEA’s 2014 report.
The report also stated that Fuziah and some members of the Save Malaysia! Stop Lynas! group had also been briefed at a stakeholders consultation session on October 14, 2014, at a hotel in Kuantan.
According to the report, the findings of the reviews, including that of the plant’s radioactive waste management, which Fuziah had yesterday said would be the focal point of her review, were also explained.
And what fueled skepticism over the committee was that no one knows who else its members are, if any, its terms of reference and that it had started reviewing since Monday without notifying the company beforehand.
“We acknowledge the government’s right to review our operations. But we also think that any policy and regulation should be scientifically based, objective, fair and just,” said Lynas chief executive officer Amanda Lacaze on Tuesday.
Should the government shut down the plant, Malaysia stands to lose at least RM66 million worth of investment that has been allocated this year, while the local economy could lose RM500 million, said Lacaze.
Also at stake are the livelihood of Malaysians who are a big majority of the workforce –about 97 per cent of the 650.
“There are 176 babies born to our staff and I can tell you that every one of them is beautiful. We do not have any (cases of) genetic mutations and the fish in our pond (at the plant) do not glow in the dark,” Lacaze quipped at her press conference.