The story of Lynas rare earths project in Malaysia, and its radioactive wastes problem

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.

Lynas was originally going to build its Lamp plant in China, which produces more than 90 per cent of global rare earths. But according to its 2007 annual report, it decided to move to Malaysia, because the Chinese government was increasing its control over production, including applying environmental standards more strictly. Lax regulation had led to what a Chinese government white paper described this year as extensive emissions of radioactive residues and heavy metals, clogged rivers, environmental pollution emergencies and accidents causing “great damage to people’s safety and health and the ecological environment”.
Lynas was attracted to Malaysia because it was offered tax free status for 10 years. Its first choice was a site in the state of Terangganu where it quickly received necessary construction approvals. Then the Malaysian government asked Lynas to move south to the Gebeng industrial estate which was built on a reclaimed swamp, 2.5km from the port of Kuantan in Pahang. Although the new land cost $30m rather than $5m, the company reported that it “had little choice but to accept this”, and in any case the infrastructure at the new site was better as it was close to petrochemical plants. For its cooperation, Lynas’s tax holiday, which included all imports and dividends, was topped up to 12 years. The company told the share market that it would start producing rare earths by June 2009.
New environmental approval documents were filed in January 2008. It took only five weeks for the state and local council environment departments and the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board to give the company a construction licence. It is clear from the documentation that at this stage the company had only temporary plans for waste storage, had not addressed the possibility that future events including flooding could affect the safety of the site, or selected a permanent waste facility. Despite the delays, shareholders were told that production would still start in 2009. As 2012 ends, the plant — which will take months to become fully operational — received its first rare earth concentrate several weeks ago.
There is an emphasis in the the company’s glossy investor presentations and annual reports of the sustainability of its products, which are necessary for the operation of almost all electronics — from smart phones to missiles. However, there was little mention of the waste — or “residue”, as Lynas prefers to call it.

Lynas and its supporters assert its operations are completely safe, but as NM reported on Monday, others — including scientists — are less confident. Lynas relies on an IAEA report that found it had complied with international standards in its construction phase, but needed to do more prior to operating. Lynas told New Matilda that since the IAEA report, it has taken the “additional safety step” of placing “hydrated residues in safe, reliably engineered, elevated storage cells that are designed so that there is no possibility for any leakage of material into the environment”. These storage cells will be monitored by Lynas and the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB).

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. The AELB and Lynas issued a joint statement mid-way through last year stating that this work would be done before any rare earths could be imported. But then, earlier this year, the AELB jumped the gun by granting a temporary operating licence which gave the company 10 months to come up with these plans. This temporary operating license was then delayed as a result of court action until November. ……. http://aliran.com/11018.html

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