August 7, 2022

The Fear of a Toxic Rerun

The plant, which would be the world’s biggest refinery for rare earths — metals crucial to the manufacture of a wide range of technologies including smartphones, smart bombs and hybrid cars — has also become the target of protesters who fear that the plant will leak radioactive and toxic materials into the water table.

Weekly demonstrations have drawn crowds since March, and someone recently threw gasoline fire bombs at the gated home of a senior project manager.

Some risks had been expected from the plant, which would refine rare earth ores into manufacturing-grade materials. Although rare earths are not radioactive, in nature they are usually found mixed with thorium — which is.

That is why the Lynas Corporation, an Australian company, promised three years ago to take special precautions when it secured the Malaysian government’s permission to build the sprawling complex here on 250 acres of reclaimed tropical swampland. It would be the first rare earth processing plant in nearly three decades to be finished outside China, where barely regulated factories have left vast toxic and radioactive waste sites.

Lynas has an incentive to finish the refinery quickly. Export restrictions by China in the last year have caused global shortages of rare earths and soaring prices. But other companies are scrambling to open new refineries in the United States, Mongolia, Vietnam and India by the end of 2013, which could cause rare earth prices to tumble.

Lynas officials contend that the refinery being built here is safe and up to industry standards, and say that they are working with its contractors to resolve their concerns.

“All parties are in agreement that it is normal course of business in any construction project for technical construction queries to be raised and then resolved to relevant international standards during the course of project construction,” wrote Matthew James, an executive vice president of Lynas, in an e-mail on Wednesday night.

Trading in Sydney of Lynas shares was halted on Thursday morning pending a company announcement. Malaysia’s ministry of international trade and industry scheduled a news conference late Thursday morning and was expected to announce what changes in the project would be required by the government after a review by a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But the construction and design may have serious flaws, according to the engineers, who also provided memos, e-mail messages and photos from Lynas and its contractors. The engineers said they felt a professional duty to voice their safety concerns, but insisted on anonymity to avoid the risk of becoming industry outcasts.

The problems they detail include structural cracks, air pockets and leaks in many of the concrete shells for 70 containment tanks, some of which are larger than double-decker buses. Ore mined deep in the Australian desert and shipped to Malaysia would be mixed with powerful acids to make a slightly radioactive slurry that would be pumped through the tanks, with operating temperatures of about 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

The engineers also say that almost all of the steel piping ordered for the plant is made from standard steel, which they describe as not suited for the corrosive, abrasive slurry. Rare earth refineries in other countries make heavy use of costlier stainless steel or steel piping with ceramic or rubber liners.

The engineers also say that the concrete tanks were built using conventional concrete, not the much costlier polymer concrete mixed with plastic that is widely used in refineries in the West to reduce the chance of cracks.

Documents show that Lynas and its construction management contractor, UGL Ltd. of Australia, have argued with their contractors that the cracks and moisture in the concrete containment walls are not a critical problem.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/business/global/30rare.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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