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RARE EARTHS, DESPITE their name, are ubiquitous in mobile phones, computer hard drives, automotive catalytic converters, and other features of modern life.
Back in 2016, “As Rare As… Earth?” here at SimanaitisSays shared some basics. Briefly, rare earths are neither earths (chemically, they’re metals) nor particularly rare. However, they tend to be found in ores peculiarly situated around the world.
“Politics Could Upend Global Trade in Rare Earth Elements,” by Yao-Hua Law, Science, April 12, 2019, brings matters up to date. There are also touches of NIMBY, as in “Not In My Backyard,” as a subtext.
AAAS Science author Law writes, “The Lynas Advanced Materials Plant, a facility in Malaysia that produces 10 percent of the world’s output of rare earth oxides (REOs), may have to close.”
LAMP is owned by Lynas, an Australian company that mines its ore at home and ships it to Malaysia for processing. And a particularly nasty processing it is: The ores are roasted in acids to dissolve the REOs, then diluted with water. The result, Law notes, is “a solution of concentrated REOs and a pastelike residue—more than 1.5 million tons so far, of which 30 percent is slightly radioactive because it retains thorium and uranium from the ores.”
There were thoughts of using this residue as a soil enhancer, but objections arose about accumulating radioactive waste in agriculture. Another idea was to extract the residue’s thorium, for use in fueling nuclear reactors.
Thus far, LAMP has been storing the residue on-site in hills covered with black sheeting. The hills are said to be only mildly radioactive: Law writes, “Workers at the site are exposed to about 1.03 millisieverts (mSv) per year, Lynas reports, far below the 20-mSv threshold advised by the International Atomic Energy Agency for workers exposed to radiation.”
The Malaysian government had an opinion on the matter: Ship the residue back to Australia. Indeed, in December 2018, it demanded this as a requirement pending renewal of LAMP’s operating license, which expires on September 2, 2019. Lynas responded this was unachievable in the timeframe.
What if LAMP shuts down? Though REOs are mined worldwide, Science notes that “Lynas is the only notable REO supplier outside of China.”
Law observes, “How the impasse will end is unclear.” He also notes, “Neither the [Malaysian] ministry nor Lynas responded to interview requests from Science.”
It may not be over until the fat lady stops singing NIMBY. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019