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The Life And Death Issues Of Rare Earth Plants
Malaysia Perspective | 03 May 2011


If not for the sensational report in a March issue of the New York Times, the people of Malaysia may still not be aware that the radiation scare is right at their doorstep!

According to the report, the world’s largest rare earth refinery is being built in Gebeng, Pahang, barely 20km from its administrative capital, Kuantan. Covering 100 hectares, the construction of the refinery is nearing completion. This rare earth plant, run by Australian mining company Lynas, is scheduled to begin operation in September this year, and is expected to contribute an estimated US$1.7 billion worth of exports annually to Malaysia. In full swing, the plant will break into the market monopolised by China to meet the global demand for rare earth. Lynas has already signed an agreement with Japan to become its main supplier of rare earth other than China.

This is the single largest foreign investment won by the East Coast Development Corridor, but it has also provoked a huge wave of opposition, mainly out of the fear of radiation and other issues involved with the rare earth extraction process. Political parties have thus launched a signature gathering campaign, while non-governmental organisations sent in their petitions to the Parliament in the form of a memorandum addressed to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who hails from Pahang, appealing to him to ‘search [his] heart and care for the people of Kuantan as their father to avert any disasters that may affect their future generations’. A task force of experts from the anti-rare earth plant camp used the nuclear crisis in Japan as a reference to remind residents of the potential threat they will be facing.

And their sense of impending doom is perfectly justified. The radiation scare at the Asian Rare Earth Refinery at Bukit Merah, Perak, 30 years ago is still fresh in the memories of many. The current Japanese nuclear crisis, that is threatening the world, adds weight to the argument that such threats are a clear and present danger. Therefore, Lynas must first allay the worries of the people so as to ensure the smooth operation of its rare earth plant. Indeed, the company has repeatedly stressed that the new plant is cleaner and safer than the one at Bukit Merah – that the radiation level is much lower as each tonne of rare earth ore will contain only 3% to 5% of radioactive thorium as compared to that from Bukit Merah. The company also guarantees that it would adhere to strict regulations in its disposal of the wastes from the plant.

Faced with such overwhelming public opinion, Prime Minister Najib assured that the authorities have already put into place special measures to ensure that there will not be another Bukit Merah incident. The Atomic Energy Licensing Board of Malaysia also stated that rare earth plants must be committed to safety before they can be issued with the license to operate. The Pahang state government claimed it has no right to intervene in the rare earth plant approved by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. However, as a confidence-boosting gesture, the state government is inviting an independent panel of experts to conduct seminars on rare earth, and they are also considering to invite experts from China, which produces 95% of the world’s rare earth. The relevant guidelines and standards adopted by China in this regard, as well as issues such as precautionary measures against radiation leak, are perhaps worthy of reference and vigilance in Malaysia.

Rare earth metals are crucial ingredients in the manufacturing of high-tech products. Without them, many high-tech industries will grind to a halt and we will not get to enjoy many of the modern day conveniences. However, this blade cuts both ways. If the process of refining rare earth metals threatens the living environment and health of mankind, our appetite for such high-tech products is going to lead us down the path of self-destruction. If prosperity and technological advancements are achieved at the cost of innocent lives, human civilisation is indeed regressing!

The Japanese nuclear crisis is an apt reminder of the detrimental consequence of our decisions. Even as the Japanese people demonstrate, with stoic patience and calmness, their confidence in their government’s relentless efforts to contain the disaster, the radiation leakage has worsened day by day, to the point that its extend of damage today is irreparable. Ultimately, the pursuit for higher economic benefits must come with the caveat that, no matter how the rare earth plant operates, investors must pledge truthfully to handle the issue of life and death seriously — no cutting corners, no wishy-washy business, no tempting of fate.

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