Rare earth refining in Malaysia without coherent waste management concept
The facility for refining Australian ore concentrate rich in rare earth metals of Lynas Corporation in Malaysia has several deficiencies concerning the operational environmental impacts. The environment is affected by acidic substances as well as from dust particles, which are emitted into the air in substantially larger concentrations than would be state-of-the-art in off-gas treatment in Europe. The storage of radioactive and toxic wastes on site does not prevent leachate from leaving the facility and entering ground and groundwater. For the long-term disposal of wastes under acceptable conditions concerning radiation safety a sustainable concept is still missing. These are the results of a study of Oeko-Institute on behalf of the Malaysian NGO SMSL.
In its facility in Kuantan/Malaysia Lynas refines ore concentrate for precious rare earth metals. These strategic metals are applied for example to produce catalysts, Nickel metal hydride batteries, permanent magnets. A number of emerging key- and future-technologies depends from the supply of these rare earths. The ore concentrate to be refined in Malaysia additionally contains toxic and radioactive constituents such as Thorium. The NGO commissioned Oeko-Institute to check whether the processing of the ore leads to hazardous emissions from the plant or will remain as dangerous waste in Malaysia.
Storage of wastes insufficient
The storage of wastes, that are generated in the refining process, shall be stored in designated facilities on the site, separately for three waste categories. According to chemist and nuclear waste expert Gerhard Schmidt, there will be problems with the pre-drying of wastes that is of a high Thorium content. “Especially in the wet and long monsoon season from September to January, this emplacement process doesn’t work”, says Schmidt. “The operator has not demonstrated how this problem can be resolved without increasing the radiation doses for workers”.
Additionally the storages are only isolated with a one-millimeter thick plastic layer and a 30 cm thick clay layer. This is insufficient to reliably enclose the several meters high and wet waste masses. “For the long-term management of these wastes Lynas has urgently to achieve a solution”, claims Gerhard Schmidt, and adds: “in no case those wastes should be marketed or used as construction material, as currently proposed by the operator (Lynas) and the regulator (AELB/MOSTI). According to our calculations this would mean to pose high radioactive doses to the public via direct radiation”.
Mass balance for toxic constituents incomplete
„One of the most serious abnormalities is that in the documents relevant data is missing, which prevents reliably accounting for all toxic materials introduced”, says project manager Gerhard Schmidt. “So it is not stated which and to what amount toxic by-products, besides Thorium, are present in the ore concentrate. Also in the emissions of the facility via wastewater only those constituents are accounted for that are explicitly listed in Malaysian water regulation, but not all emitted substances.” The salt content of the wastewater is as high that it is comparable to seawater. This is discharged without any removal into the river Sungai Balok.
Scientists question the issued licenses
The scientists at Oeko-Institute evaluate the detected deficiencies as very serious. Those deficiencies should have been already detected in the licensing process, when the application documents were being checked. However the operator received a construction license in 2008 and a temporary operating license in 2012.
Especially for the safe long-term disposal of the radioactive wastes a suitable site that meets internationally accepted safety criteria has to be selected urgently. A consensus has to be reached with the affected stakeholders, such as the local public and their representatives. “If it further remains open how to manage those wastes in a long-term sustainable manner, a future legacy associated with unacceptable environmental and health risks is generated”, considers Schmidt. “The liability to prevent those risks and to remove the material is so shifted to future generations, which is not acceptable.”
Strategic role of rare earths
Rare earths are important metals that are used in future technologies such as efficient electro motors, lighting and catalysts. In its study from 2011 "Study on Rare Earths and Their Recycling" Oeko-Institute showed that no relevant recycling of these metals is performed so far. Albeit recent positive developments in this direction: satisfying the prognosticated global requires the extension of the worldwide primary production.
For many years rare earth metals were exclusively mined and refined in the People’s Republic of China. By pointing to their own needs, China finally followed a restrictive export policy. Additionally, the mining and refining of rare earths there is associated with high environmental impacts. To establish additional primary production of rare earths outside China therefore makes sense. However, high environmental standards have, of course, to be met. But this is not the case in one of the first new facilities to be operated outside China, as this study of Oeko-Institute on the Lynas plant demonstrates.
Contact at Oeko-Institut
Researcher in Nuclear & Plant Safety Division
Oeko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology), Darmstadt office
Phone: +49 6151 8191-107
Mobile: +49 175 1834118