Until recent debate gave life to the sodden term, the only thing rare about rare earths was the existence of general knowledge surrounding the commonly occurring 17 “tacked-on elements” found at the bottom of the periodic table. China’s current grip of the market, responsible for producing 95 to 97 percent of the metals necessary for a host of modern technology, ranging from LCD televisions and smart bombs to “green technology” such as wind turbines and solar panels, has spurred governments across the globe into a scramble to secure access to steady sources while citizens increasingly question the containment procedures of its low-level radioactive by-products. The US, once a powerhouse for rare earths production before it began systematically being undercut by China, and Malaysia are set to bring new processing plants online.
Next June, Lynas, an Australian rare earths mining company, will open up a refinery in Gebang, Pahang, in Peninsular Malaysia, which will be the largest of its kind in the world. The Gebang plant will weaken China’s stranglehold by supplying one-fifth of the world market. But possible excitement over this news has been drowned out by the vehement “Stop Lynas, Save Malaysia” (SLSM) movement, who incense themselves with the memories of the radioactive poisoning caused by a rare earths refinery in Bukit Merah nearly three decades ago.
At the massive Bersih 3.0 rally last month, anti-Lynas protestors made their presence visible, dotting the sea of yellow shirts with green — the chosen color of their cause. In the kerfuffle of the well-documented afternoon, I spotted a placard held by a young ethnic Chinese man which read: “Lynas, Go back to Australia!” For many, the Australian mining company’s Gebang project feels like a reiteration of policies past to move dirty industry into the so-called Third World.
Lynas has made attempts to allay fears using social media, stating on their Facebook page that Malaysia was chosen for logistical and economic reasons. However, the fact that international law forbids the cross-border transportation of radioactive waste (a law eagerly signed by Malaysia at the time) in the wake of the Fukushima disaster hasn’t helped to impart a sense of safety.
At the top of the list of demands being made by SLSM is the need for a “permanent” waste storage facility. While a long-term contract for an above-ground facility lined with high-density plastic and a clay layer has been agreed upon with the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), protestors have explicitly expressed that this does little to ensure the prevention of contamination. This has lead to accusatory rhetoric being lobbed at Lynas, which in turn has taken up legal action against SLSM for unlawful defamation.
So why the giant fuss? The abstrusely named 17 chemical elements (lanthanum and neodymium, for example) at the center of the issue happen to be necessary in the production of modern electronics, including “smart” military technology. Without these refined metals, miniaturized magnetic motors in gadgets wouldn’t spin, colors on LCD televisions wouldn’t pop out, and hybrid car batteries wouldn’t have the capacity they need to run a vehicle.
Perhaps most ironically, the generation of radioactive waste is intrinsic to the production of hybrid cars and other so-called “green technology” such as solar panels and wind turbines. What the equivalent output of radioactive waste is for a field of solar panels or wind power farm is doesn’t get its due attention in the media yet.
Until an alternative solution is found for refining these metals, the best consumers can do is to call for safe storage of waste. That or take a step back from our “smart phones” and “green technology” and realize that these evocative labels of modern technology are more clever wordsmithing than sustainable solutions.