Oeko-Institut Finds Lynas Severely Lacking

Finally, an audit from an inde­pend­ent insti­tute on the Lynas pro­ject that speaks the most per­suas­ive lan­guage in the world — science.

The full report can be down­loaded from their site. As the oper­a­tion of this plant has now been shown to be extraordin­ar­ily det­ri­mental to the health of every single per­son, I find no qualms in present­ing the full sum­mary of their find­ings for perusal:

28.01.2013

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.