In some cases, renewable energy can have profoundly harmful environmental effects if not managed correctly, writes Noel Wauchope.
AUSTRALIA'S LYNAS CORPORATION is currently under the business and political spotlight. The current controversy over Lynas rare earth elements company is a wake-up call to an area of vulnerability in renewable technologies – the radioactive pollution produced by developing the rare earth elements essential for today's hi-tech devices. Electric cars, batteries, energy efficient lighting, smartphones, solar panels, wind turbines and so on all need some of the 17 mineral elements classed as rare earth. The mining and processing of this produces radioactive trash.
Environmentalists, in their enthusiasm for renewable energy, seem unaware of this fact, while they rightly condemn coal and nuclear power, for their toxic by-products.
Australia's Lynas Corporation has two major rare earth facilities — mining at Mount Weld, Western Australia, and processing at Kuantan, Malaysia. For years, there's been a smouldering controversy going on in Malaysia, over the radioactive wastes produced by the refining facility at Kuantan.
Now, this has come to a head. On 17th April, the Malaysian Government insisted that Lynas Corp must remove more than 450,000 tonnes of radioactive waste from the country, for its licence to be renewed in September.
Australian Government legislation and policy prohibits the import of radioactive waste. However, some categories of radioactive waste are exempt from this law, if they contain very low levels of radioactivity.
Here's where it all gets terribly complicated.
Wesfarmers wants to take over Lynas. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) is examining this, and especially Wesfarmers' involvement with the Malaysian government. The Age on 16 April, reported that Prime Minister Mahathir, following discussions with Wesfarmers, announced that a company interested in acquiring Lynas had promised to extract the radioactive waste before exporting the ore to Malaysia.
All this raises the question of exactly what would an Australian company, such as Wesfarmers, do with that radioactive waste? This is a thorny problem. And what would Lynas do about their current problem?
In 2011 and 2014, the IAEA found that Lynas lacked adequate plans for a permanent waste facility. Since commencing operations in 2012, this problem has remained unresolved and Lynas has been plagued with fierce opposition from some scientists, and an unrelenting community campaign — Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas.
From the beginning, this Malaysian operation was mired in politics and secrecy, both in Australia and in Malaysia. The Age reported that Kevin Rudd, while Foreign Minister in 2011, was concerned about the radioactive wastes, but also was under pressure from Japan to promote Malaysian processing.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak first approved the Lynas Advance Materials Plant (LAMP), granted the company "pioneer" status and offered it a 12-year tax exemption. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's current Government has inherited the problem of radioactive waste and seeks to have the matter finally resolved.
It is complicated to grasp the methods used and just what is required for the proper cleanup of the Lynas rare earth elements refining. Lynas CEO Amanda Lacaze maintains that the wastes left behind are only marginally radioactive.
Culture and history play a role here, as well as politics. Japan and Australia were keen to provide a source of rare earth that would be an alternative to China, which controls 90% of the world's rare earth production. So, Malaysia looked like an attractive solution for processing Australia's excellent source of rare earth elements. Malaysia might have looked appropriate too because Malaysia has had experience in rare earth processing.
But here's where culture and history really have their impact, precisely in Malaysia's experience of rare earth processing. Even if the Lynas waste really is only slightly radioactive, Malaysians remember the environmental and health disaster of Bukit Merah; where, early this century, rare earth processing left a toxic wasteland.
It's really quite hard to get details of this. Most news items about it have disappeared from the internet — specifically, claims of high rates of birth defects and leukaemia. Prominent Australian journalist Wendy Bacon covered this in 2012.
China's rare earth element processing disaster in Inner Mongolia is better known, an environmental catastrophe from the 1960s which lingers today. Modern processing has improved safety in waste management. In relation to nuclear power, there is an abundance of information on radioactive waste management, for China and for other countries. However, there's little or no information that's easily available to specifically discuss radioactive waste from rare earth processing.
Australia does have another, smaller, rare earth elements mining and processing operation, Arafura Resources, in Central Australia. The Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority (EPA) found this acceptable.
We really don't know whether the 450,000 tonnes of radioactive trash left from the Lynas operation in Malaysia is as safe as Lynas claims or whether the Malaysians' fears are justified.
What is clear, is that the production of the world's hi-tech devices is not a simple matter as far as the environment goes. Climate change activists, anti-nuclear activists and environmentalists in general can keep on promoting renewable energy and electric cars.
But they seem to be blind to the total picture, which includes the downside. Obviously, it is necessary to ensure safer disposal of the trash from rare earth mining and processing. A better idea is to develop the design of devices so that the minerals can be retrieved from them and recycled, thus greatly eliminating the need for mining rare earth. And this is beginning to happen.
Ultimately, if we are to save this planet, these technical fixes are not going to be enough. Australians are great at wanting to save nature but we need to move on from our mindless admiration for seemingly endless renewable energy.
Energy conservation is the biggest factor in the change that is needed. Social change, however difficult that will be, is going to be the most important answer — the transition from a consumer society to a conserver society.
The Lynas radioactive trash controversy is not going to go away quickly, however much governments and corporations want to keep it under wraps. And it also could be a catalyst for discussion on that downside of renewable and hi-tech devices. This is something to think about as we throw away last year’s iPhone in favour of the latest model.
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