Clearing Air over Rare Earth Project

By A Jalil Hamid

But public safety must come first

Malaysia could soon help break China’s monopoly on rare earth metals by opening the world’s largest refinery in Gebeng, Pahang, which will have the capacity to supply a fifth of the world’s demand.

BY now, Malaysians are probably familiar with the term rare earths. They are strategic metals used in many consumer products such as smartphones and computers.
Many "green" technologies, such as wind turbines, low-energy light bulbs and hybrid car battery packs, rely on them, as does advanced military technology.

In many ways, rare earths, which are strategic resources that modern economies are built on, are like natural rubber, which Malaysia was once the world's biggest producer and exporter.

Rubber is often dubbed as the fourth most important natural resource in the world after water, steel and oil. Without rubber tyres, we will not be able drive to work. Everything will come to a virtual standstill.

Currently, China holds a global monopoly of rare earth metals, producing some 97 per cent of the world's supply. During a territorial dispute in 2010 between China and Japan, it cut its rare earth exports, causing prices to increase by as much as 30 times.

Malaysia could soon help break China's monopoly on the sector by opening the world's largest refinery. Being developed by Australian company Lynas, the plant in Gebeng, Pahang, will have the capacity to supply a fifth of the world's demand.

The billion-dollar project is not without hitches. There have been various regulatory hurdles and a slew of issues with regard to the environment and the health and safety of people living around the plant.

Opposition to the project took a fresh turn after the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) last week approved a temporary operating licence (TOL) -- subject to conditions -- to start processing rare earths at the plant.

The two-year provisional licence was necessary for AELB to verify claims made by Lynas in its safety reports.

AELB director-general Raja Datuk Abdul Aziz Raja Adnan noted: "We are here to guarantee the safety of the public, the environment and the plant's workers."

He said if any of the conditions were not met, the licence could be suspended or withdrawn and further applications would not be considered.

Lynas still has to submit a detailed plan for a permanent disposal facility for residue from the plant within 10 months and pay US$50 million (RM150 million) to the government as a financial guarantee.

Lynas expects to meet its new target for starting up the facility, which is 91 per cent complete, in the second quarter of this year. The first cash flow from rare earth products will come two months later.

Contrary to public perception, Lynas is not a nuclear plant. It is just a venture to process rare earth minerals. But critics of the project are stoking fears over the so-called radiation leaks, citing the recent nuclear incident in Fukushima, Japan.

By approving the TOL, the AELB is probably doing the right thing so that it could closely monitor Lynas' safety records and ensure that the company adheres to all the conditions.

The AELB must also walk the talk. It must start showing that it is serious in enforcing the rules and conditions. The safety of the people and the preservation of the environment must come first.

Compared with the now-closed Asian Rare Earth (ARE) project in Bukit Merah, Perak, technology and safety standards are much better now than before.

Bukit Merah was the site of Malaysia's first rare earth plant 20 years ago.

Dr Ismail Bahari, who has a 30-year experience in radiological safety and is with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said recently that the radiation level at the plant would be very low when it eventually starts operations. He said in a worst-case scenario, the radiation level would be at 0.002mSv/year (millisievert), way less than the permissible level of 1mSv/year.

He said fatal cancer risk assessment showed that the radiation level could only cause less than one case per one million people, much lower than the 720 cases per one million at the national level.

From the regulatory point of view, government agencies have remained vigilant in safeguarding the health and safety of the people. Experts from overseas have been approached to provide an independent view of the project's safety standards.

From the technical perspective, the residue from the rare earth minerals, although they contain low levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM), was safe and manageable, scientists said.

From the business point of view, the rare earth project will certainly contribute to the creation of the eco-system for hi-tech and green industries in Malaysia.

Rare earths were "vitamins" for environmentally-friendly technology and Malaysia should now attract downstream hi-tech industries to relocate around the plant, Academy of Sciences Malaysia chief spokesman Datuk Dr Lee Yee Cheong said recently.

He remarked: "Malaysia is strategically placed in the (global) race for green technology competitiveness in the next five to 10 years."

The opposition game, analysts said, was to stir up emotions without looking at the broader picture. In such an emotional campaign, reason usually takes a back seat.


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