We use rare earths in a wide range of modern conveniences, from consumer electronics to hybrid car batteries.
Recently, rare earths have been in the news thanks to skyrocketing prices. High prices are a result of increased demand due to new technologies and artificially limited supply – artificially limited by China, which currently controls more than 90% of global rare earth mineral production, but less than 40% of known deposits.
Rare earth minerals are expensive and dangerous to mine, not to mention the environmental impacts common to all mining, in addition to radioactive waste concerns.
Now, companies like Australia’s Lynas Corporation Ltd. are trying to even the playing field by developing mines outside of China — and making a buck, or $1.7 billion, while they’re at it.
This brings us to Malaysia.
In 1985, Mitsubishi Chemical of Japan opened a rare earths processing facility in Buhit Merah, Malaysia. The plant operated until 1992 without plans for dealing with the radioactive waste it produced.
Subsequently, the company has spent $100 million since closure on insufficient cleanup measures that have left the community poisoned by their mistakes. The thousands of tons of low-level radioactive waste left behind in Buhit Merah remains one of Asia’s largest radioactive waste cleanup sites.
Their failures didn’t make many friends for Lynas’ new, $230 million rare earth refinery currently under construction in Pahang, Malaysia. Lynas hopes to complete the refinery by the end of 2011 to process rare earths produced at its Western Australia mine, Mount Weld. If completed, the Lynas refinery will be the largest rare earth refinery in the world and the first project completed outside of China in almost three decades.
Given the history of radioactive waste in Malaysia, citizens are outraged about the concerning construction record and plan to store radioactive waste on-site for 1,500 years. Local members of parliament have vocalized opposition and organized over five months of protests, slowing construction. With concerns about water pollution, regional economic impacts, and radioactive waste, community opposition to the processing plant has been steadily growing.