Environmental advocates expressed disapproval on Wednesday regarding Malaysia’s choice to permit Lynas Rare Earths to operate until March 2026. They also called for greater openness regarding the Australian mining company’s strategies for extracting a radioactive substance from its increasing amount of waste.
On Tuesday, the government announced that it has granted Lynas permission to continue importing and processing rare earths at its refinery in Pahang state. This decision goes against the previous plan to halt these activities by January 1st. The change of heart came after Lynas presented a plan to safely extract thorium, a radioactive element, from both its raw materials and the over one million tons of waste stored at the refinery.
Activist Wong Tack suggested that the government should have required Lynas to demonstrate the feasibility of their proposal by promptly extracting thorium from their current waste.
The (science) minister’s decision to extend Lynas’ license and permit them to produce more waste, without properly handling the existing waste, is highly irresponsible.
The environmental organization Friends of the Earth Malaysia expressed confusion over the government’s change of stance, which was apparently influenced by a preliminary laboratory investigation conducted by Lynas. They are demanding that the details of the Lynas study be released to the public.
According to the report, the government rejected Lynas’s previous attempt to convert radioactive waste into fertilizer for agriculture.
The statement expressed doubt and concern about the government’s decision to reverse based on the initial research. It emphasized the importance of prioritizing public health and environmental well-being over profit from the rare earths industry.
On Tuesday, Science Minister Chang Lih Kang announced that the government has reviewed Lynas’ proposal and deemed it possible. However, he did not disclose any specifics. He also mentioned that Lynas would have to conduct a trial run before they can start selling thorium, which can be utilized in foreign nuclear power plants and various other industries.
Lynas’ Malaysian refinery, established in 2012, is their first non-Chinese location and produces essential minerals for advanced manufacturing. The company received a 10-year tax exemption from the government, but there have been concerns about the disposal of radioactive waste from the facility.
The waste has accumulated in a large open landfill, vulnerable to natural disasters like floods. Lynas is constructing a permanent disposal site to bury the waste, but it is unclear why it has taken so long to finish.
This week, the company received another extension, adding to the multiple delays it has already been granted. The government’s initial demand was for Lynas to relocate its leaching and cracking operations, which generate radioactive waste from Australian ore, outside of the country by the end of the year. Additionally, the company was prohibited from importing raw materials containing radioactive elements into the country.
According to Science Minister Chang, the outcome of the decision is mutually beneficial as it would not only eliminate the radioactive element, but also address the problem of increasing toxic waste.
Rare earths are 17 minerals used to make products such as electric or hybrid vehicles, weapons, flat-screen TVs, mobile phones, mercury-vapor lights and camera lenses. China has about a third of the world’s rare earth reserves but a near monopoly on supplies. Lynas has said its refinery could meet nearly a third of world demand for rare earths, excluding China.